Trailblazers in medicine: 5 women who made history


March is Women’s History Month the perfect time to recognize the contributions women have made to medicine. Today, we recognize 5 women throughout history that propelled the fields of obstetrics and gynecology.

Metrodora (200-400 C.E.)

In the late 5th century C.E., Greek physician Metrodora authored a medical text, “On Women’s Diseases,” which is thought to be the oldest surviving medical text by a woman. While its contents are primarily focused on gynecologic issues, such as vaginal infections, and medical examinations via speculum, it also contains general health information on hair removal and hemorrhoid treatment.1

Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1846-1922)

A Book of Medical Discourses

Front page of Crumpler's A Book of Medical Discourses. There are no existing photos of her. Public domain, courtesy U.S. National Library of Medicine.

As the first Black woman to become a doctor in the United States, Rebecca Lee Crumpler blazed a trail for African and Black Americans to pursue careers in medicine. In 1864, Crumpler received a “doctress of medicine” from the New England Female Medical College, which later merged with Boston University Medical School in 1874.

After earning her degree in 1864, she went to Richmond, Virginia to care for formerly enslaved people. Crumpler published A Book of Medical Discourses, in Two Parts2, in 1883, chronicling her experiences as a doctor and offering guidance on maternal and child health.3

Sophia Jex-Blake (1840-1912)

Sophia Jex-Blake

Sophia Jex-Blake at the age of 25. From the University of Toronto Libraries, Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.

Nineteenth-century Scottish physician Sophia Jex-Blake dedicated her life to women’s rights in medicine. She and 6 other women (Isabel Thorn, Edith Pechey, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Mary Anderson, and Emily Bovell)—later known as the ‘Edinburg Seven,’ campaigned for almost a decade for women’s rights to attend medical school and practice medicine. Prominent physicians and scientists supported the Seven’s movement, including Charles Darwin.

Their efforts reached a critical point on November 18, 1870, which became known as the Surgeon’s Hall riot. Jex-Blake and her peers were attacked by male students and locked out of the Royal College of Surgeons at the University of Edinburgh where they were supposed to write anatomy exams. Later, after several petitions to medical and governmental institutions, Britain eventually passed the Medical Act of 1876, which allowed all medical institutions in Britain to license qualified applicants as medical doctors, regardless of their gender.4

Elizabeth Blackwell (1812-1910)

Elizabeth Blackwell, 1821-1910, oval bust, wearing a wedding veil.

Elizabeth Blackwell, 1821-1910, oval bust, wearing a wedding veil.

Image credit: The Library of Congress

British physician Elizabeth Blackwell graduated from New York’s Geneva Medical College in 1849, making her the first woman in America to receive a medical degree. According to the National Women’s History Museum, Blackwell credited her desire to pursue medicine to a friend who told Blackwell—while dying—that her situation would have been better had she been in the care of a female physician.5

After graduation, Blackwell continued her training in London and Paris, returning to New York City in 1851. It was there she opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children with her sister Emily Blackwell and colleague Marie Zakrzewska. Blackwell opened a medical college in New York City in 1868, and 1 year later, put her sister in charge and returned to London, becoming a professor of gynecology at the new London School of Medicine for Women. Blackwell also helped found the National Health Society and published several books, including her autobiography, Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women (1895).6

Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926)

Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926)

Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926). Image: Public domain, National Women's Hall of Fame.

In 1879, Boston native Mary Eliza Mahoney became the first Black woman to practice nursing in the United States. She was born to freed slaves who had moved to Boston from North Carolina, and was educated at Phillips School in Boston, which after 1855, became one of the first integrated schools in the country. As a teenager, Mahoney began working at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, a hospital and nursing school that provided care for women and children and was entirely staffed by female physicians. Mahoney worked there for 15 years where she worked as a janitor, cook, and a nurse’s aide.7

In 1878, she was admitted to the hospital’s professional graduate school for nursing, along with 41 other students. Only 4 students, including Mahoney, completed the program in 1879, making her the first Black woman in the country to earn a professional nursing license. Following her training, Mahoney decided not to practice public nursing because of her experiences with overwhelming discrimination and instead became a private nurse, practicing for 40 years. In 1908, she co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, and later became director of the Howard Orphanage Asylum for Black Children in Kings Park, Long Island in New York City. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1993.7

  1. Brooklyn Museum: Metrodora. Published 2022. Accessed March 7, 2022.
  2. A book of medical discourses: in two parts - Digital Collections - National Library of Medicine. Published 2022. Accessed March 7, 2022.
  3. Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (U.S. National Park Service). Published 2016. Accessed March 7, 2022.
  4. ‌ Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library Queer Women in the History of Medicine: Sophia Jex-Blake and Women’s Medical Education in Victorian Britain. Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. Published 2022. Accessed March 7, 2022.
  5. Biography: Elizabeth Blackwell. Biography: Elizabeth Blackwell. Published 2015. Accessed March 7, 2022.
  6. Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women. Published 2022. Accessed March 7, 2022.
  7. Spring, Kelly. “Mary Mahoney." National Women's History Museum. National Women's History Museum, 2017. Accessed March 7, 2022.
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