5 female pioneers who changed medicine as we know it

By Alistair Gardiner
Published March 3, 2021

Key Takeaways

Women throughout history have made invaluable discoveries and contributions to the field of medicine, frequently in the face of rejection and discrimination—and too often without the recognition their male peers have earned for their achievements.

In honor of Women’s History Month, here are five key female figures whose stars shine brightly in the history of medicine. If it weren’t for their achievements, we wouldn’t be able to cure as many diseases or conduct the kind of research we do today.

Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) 

Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to graduate with a medical degree from an American medical school, paving the way for women to enter medical schools in this country. Born in Bristol, England, in 1821, she moved to the United States with her family at the age of 11. 

After spending several years in teaching, Blackwell turned to medicine after a close friend who was dying told her that she may have suffered less if her physician was a woman. At the time, however, women were not admitted to medical schools.

Blackwell applied to more than a dozen medical schools before New York’s Geneva Medical College accepted her application in 1847. She was only admitted after the faculty decided to let the all-male student body at the time vote on whether she should be allowed to attend—as a joke, they all voted yes. But they let her enroll.

Despite facing constant ridicule and adversity, Blackwell graduated with a medical degree in 1849, becoming the first woman in the United States to do so. She went on to work in clinics across Europe, before establishing the New York Infirmary in 1857, along with her sister, Dr. Emily Blackwell, and Dr. Marie Zakrzewska. This institution offered treatment to the poor, but also training to other women who had faced rejection from medical internships schools. In addition, she published several books on the topic, including Medicine as a Profession for Women (1860) and Address on the Medical Education of Women (1864)

Mary Putnam Jacobi (1842-1906)  

Mary Putnam Jacobi was the first female member of the Academy of Medicine. Born in London, England, she moved with her parents to New York in 1848. She exhibited a talent for writing (political essays and fiction) and published an essay in the Atlantic Monthly at the age of 17. But she was most known for her career in medicine and as a highly respected scientist.

Putnam got her education at the New York College of Pharmacy in 1861 and received a medical degree from the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1864. She went on to have a highly venerated career as a medical practitioner and teacher, going on to write more than 120 scientific articles and nine books. She was also a fierce critic of the exclusion of women from scientific and medical professions, and dedicated much of her life to broadening educational opportunities for women.

Putnam first started practicing medicine at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Boston in 1862 with the help of Dr. Marie Zakrzewska, a fellow graduate who founded the hospital. After training further in Paris, Putnam returned to New York and set up the Association for the Advancement of the Medical Education of Women. She also lectured at the Women's Medical College of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. 

After gaining prestige through the publication of various papers, Putnam was voted into the Academy of Medicine by a margin of just one vote. Joining the society was a vital move when it came to securing jobs and gaining the community’s respect. She became the society’s first-ever female member. 

Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951) 

Henrietta Lacks, born in 1920 in Roanoke, VA, had no idea she would someday be known as the woman whose cells revolutionized medical research. In 1951, she visited Johns Hopkins hospital, the only nearby institute that would serve black and poor people, over what she described as a “knot” in her stomach. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer and was unable to pay the medical bills. “Doctors often took advantage of poor people’s situation by using them for research; in the doctor’s eyes it was compensation for not paying,” wrote the author of a blogpost about Henrietta Lacks for The Jackson Laboratory.  

As such, a doctor cut a piece of Lacks’ tumor and gave it to researchers who were studying cell growth and attempting to create an environment in which human cells could survive indefinitely in culture. It’s important to note that this research was performed without her informed consent, and there were no laws at the time to protect Lacks—such laws were eventually developed later, partly because of her story.  

Lacks’ cells, now known as HeLa cells, boasted unique qualities which allowed researchers to discover groundbreaking cell culture methods. Her cells proliferated slowly in conditions that would typically kill cells. While the reason for this still remains unclear, researchers hypothesize it has something to do with the aggressiveness of her cancer, the fact that her cancer cells had multiple copies of the HPV genome, and that she had syphilis, which suppressed her immune system.  

Thanks to Lacks’ cells, scientists have subsequently made breakthroughs in cell biology, drug development, and the basic understanding of various human diseases. HeLa cells had an impact on the development of treatments for Parkinson disease, AIDS, leukemia, influenza, certain cancers, and hemophilia; contributed to the development of the polio vaccine; helped establish the field of virology; contributed to space travel research; and more. HeLa cells are in just about every biological laboratory in the world, the blog author noted.

Author Rebecca Skloot, who chronicled Lacks’ story in her bestselling 2010 book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” said it best: “There is not a person out there that has not benefitted from HeLa cells.” 

Nanette Kass Wenger (1930-)

Nanette Kass Wenger is a world-renowned cardiologist who was among the first physicians to focus on coronary heart disease in women, and to examine the differentiation of risk factors and symptoms in women and men. Heart disease was initially considered a disease that primarily affected men.  

Born in 1930 in New York City to parents who emigrated from Russia, she was one of only 10 women in the 120-student graduating class of Harvard University Medical School in 1954. She has authored and co-authored over 1,300 scientific and review articles and book chapters, and has served on the editorial boards of more than a dozen national and international journals.

Dr. Wenger is professor of medicine (cardiology) emeritus at Emory University School of Medicine, in Atlanta, VA; a consultant for the Emory Heart and Vascular Center; and founding consultant at Emory Women’s Heart Center. She is the recipient of numerous cardiology awards and honors. 

Patricia S. Goldman-Rakic (1937-2003)

Patricia S. Goldman was a professor of neuroscience at Yale University, who is best known for her pioneering research on brain and memory functions, which paved the way for our understanding of diseases like schizophrenia, Alzheimer, and Parkinson.

Born in Salem, MA, in 1937, she went on to study at Vassar College in 1959 and earned a doctorate from University of California at Los Angeles in 1963, before joining the faculty at Yale. Goldman was the first researcher to map the frontal lobe of the brain, including regions responsible for reasoning, planning, personality and other cognitive functions. She used several pioneering techniques, like electrical impulses and behavioral responses, to accurately locate and describe its structure. The frontal lobe was once considered inaccessible to robust scientific analysis due to its location behind the forehead.

Her discoveries include demonstrating that certain cells in the prefrontal cortex are dedicated to specific memory tasks, like short-term memory functions or “working memory” functions. Goldman was also the first scientist to figure out that dopamine loss in the prefrontal cortex leads to memory deficits, which changed the landscape of neuropsychiatry by increasing our understanding about the symptoms of mental illness.

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