National Women Physicians Day: 10 Moments That Matter in Medicine


The list of women's contributions to the field of medicine is a long one, encompassing the hard work of hundreds of individuals. To highlight some of these pioneers, NeurologyLive® has compiled a timeline of 10 of the moments that matter in the history of women in medicine.

February 3 is annually celebrated in the United States as a day of recognition for women in medicine. Known as National Women Physicians Day, this acknowledgment of the achievements of women in the medical field is held on the birthday of Elizabeth Blackwell, MD, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States, which she earned from Geneva Medical College in Geneva, New York. Born in England, she then returned to her country of birth, where she opened a private practice and a medical school for women.1-4

Women's contributions to the field of medicine stretch back in history much further, with ancient civilizations in Greece and Egypt showing evidence of women practicing medicine in various forms.2 But, although she was certainly not the first woman to practice medicine in history, Blackwell's initial step paved the way for the modern era of women in a field of science that has flourished with their contributions.

The list of those achievements is a long one encompassing the hard work of hundreds of individuals spanning as many years. To highlight some of these pioneers, NeurologyLive® has compiled a timeline of 10 of the many moments that matter in medicine.

1. Elizabeth Blackwell

Born on February 3, 1821, Blackwell was a British physician, achieving the aforementioned feat of being the first woman awarded a medical degree in the United States. She was also the first woman on the Medical Register of the General Medical Council for the United Kingdom. She died on May 31, 1910.

2. Mary Edwards Walker

Born on November 26, 1832, Walker was an American surgeon—credited as the first woman in the US to become one—who served in the US Army. She was also an abolitionist and was held as a prisoner of war. She is the only woman to ever receive the Medal of Honor. She died on February 21, 1919.

3. Rebecca Lee Crumpler

Born on February 8, 1831, as Rebecca Davis, Crumpler Blackwell was an American physician and nurse. She became the first African-American woman to become a doctor in the United States, and was one of the first women physicians to become a published author in the nineteenth century, publishing A Book of Medical Discourses in 1883. She died on March 9, 1895.

4. Susan La Flesche Picotte

Born on June 17, 1865, Picotte was a Native American of the Omaha tribe who advocated for many health (and other) reforms in the latter half of the 19th century. She was the first Indigenous woman, and one of the first Indigenous people, to earn a medical degree in the United States. She died on September 18, 1915.

5. Mary Engle Pennington

Born on October 8, 1872, Pennington was an American bacteriological chemist. After working for the US Department of Agriculture, she became the chief of the newly created Food Research Laboratory, part of the effort that spawned the modern FDA. She also founded the Philadelphia Clinical Laboratory and served as the director of the clinical laboratory at the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania. She died on December 27, 1952.

6. Florence Seibert

Born on October 6, 1897, Seibert was an American biochemist, whose work identified the tuberculin antigen as a protein and isolated its pure form, known as the purified protein derivative. This led to the development of the first reliable test for tuberculosis. She died on August 23, 1991.

7. Beatrix McCleary Hamburg

Born on October 19, 1923, Hamburg was an American psychiatrist who was responsible for many advances in the field of pediatric psychiatry. She was also the first Black person to attend Vassar College and the first Black woman to graduate from Yale Medical School. In addition to holding professorships at a number of universities, she served on the President's Commission on Mental Health under the administration of President Jimmy Carter. She died on April 15, 2018.

8. Mildred Jefferson

Born on April 6, 1927, Jefferson was an American physician. She was the first Black woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School, and Harvard's first woman to graduate in surgery. She was also the first woman to become a member of the Boston Surgical Society. She was also known as a staunch political advocate. She died on October 15, 2010.

9. Helen Brooke Taussig

Born on May 24, 1898, Taussig was an American cardiologist who is credited with founding the field of pediatric cardiology, and who developed the concept of a procedure for treating children born with Tetralogy of Fallot. This procedure is known as the Blalock-Thomas-Taussig shunt. She died on May 20, 1986.

10. Antonia Novella

Born on August 23, 1944, Novella is a Puerto Rican physician and public health administrator. After her time as a vice admiral in the Public Health Service Commissioned Corp, she served as the 14th Surgeon General of the United States from 1990 to 1993—becoming both the first woman and the first Hispanic person to do so. Novello also served as Commissioner of Health for the State of New York from 1999 to 2006. Until the end of 2014, Novello was also an executive director of public health policy at Florida Hospital - Orlando.

1. National Women Physicians Day. Yale School of Medicine. Accessed February 3, 2023.
2. History of Women in Medicine. University of Alabama-Birmingham. 2015. Accessed February 2, 2023.
3. Women physicians over the centuries. Yale Medical Magazine. 2018. Accessed February 3, 2023.
4. Weiner S. Celebrating 10 women medical pioneers. AAMC website. March 3, 2020. Accessed February 3, 2023.
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