Female Trailblazers Who Changed Medicine

Carbon Health Editorial Team
March 8, 2021
5 min

In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re celebrating the brave, resilient, and groundbreaking females who helped paved the way for future generations of healthcare professionals. 

Sara Josephine Baker, MD
Baker was the first director of New York’s Bureau of Child Hygiene and an instrumental force in pediatric health in the U.S. Baker was also a suffragist and a member of the Heterodoxy Club, where she was known as “Dr Joe.” To succeed in the male-dominated world of public health administration, she minimized her femininity by wearing masculine-tailored suits to blend in. She spent much of her career focused on preventive health measures and diseases in urban areas and is known for tracking down Mary ‘Typhoid Mary’ Mallon, twice.

Elizabeth Blackwell, MD
Blackwell was the first woman to earn a medical degree in the U.S, graduating from Geneva Medical College in 1849. The Brit went on to be an advocate for women in medicine, opening the New York Infirmary for Women and Children in 1857 and a medical college for women doctors a year later.

Dorothy Lavina Brown, MD
Brown, known to many as “Dr. D”,  was the first Black female surgeon. She practiced for years in the Southeastern U.S during the 1900s. And if her incredible talents as a surgeon weren’t enough, she was also the first Black female to serve in the Tennessee General Assembly and was elected to the Tennessee House or Representatives There, she fought for the rights of women and people of color.

Alexa Canady, MD
A graduate of the University of Michigan, Canady became the first Black woman neurosurgeon in 1981. She went on to specialize in pediatric neurosurgery and was inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame in 1989.

Margaret Jessie Chung, MD

Born in 1889 in Santa Barbara, California, was the first known American-born Chinese female physician in the United States. She established one of the first Western medical clinics in San Francisco's Chinatown in the early 1920s. When Japan invaded China in 1937, Chung volunteered as a front-line surgeon,but she was secretly assigned instead to recruit pilots for the 1st American Volunteer Group, better known as the "Flying Tigers."

Rebecca J. Cole, MD

Dr. Cole was the second Black female physician in the United States after Rebecca Crumpler. Her work focused on educating impoverished communities about hygiene, infant care and spent a considerable amount of her efforts visiting destitute communities. She paved the way for recognizing the importance of public health initiatives and was recognized by Elizabeth Blackwell MD for these efforts.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler, MD

Born in 1831, Crumpler went on to become the first Black woman physician in the US. She also published A Book of Medical Discourses in 1883 which focused on maternal and pediatric care.

Patricia Goldman-Rakic, PhD

As Chief of Developmental Neurobiology at the National Institute of Mental Health, Goldman-Rakic helped pioneer research that allowed scientists to better understand cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, and Parkinson’s disease (to just name a few).

Mary Putnam Jacobi, MD
Jacobi wasn’t afraid to bring menstruation into the mainstream.  Her essay, ‘The Question of Rest for Women during Menstruation,” helped debunk a popular theory at the time that women were unfit to work or get an education while on their periods. A physician and educator, she fought strongly for women’s rights and co-ed education her entire life.

T. S. Kanaka, MD (also known as Thanjavur Santhanakrishna Kanaka)

Born in 1932, was Asia's first female neurosurgeon and one of the world's first few female neurosurgeons. After a tragic death in her family of her nine year old brother, Kanaka decided to dedicate her life to pursuing medicine. 6 years after retiring as a surgeon, in 1996, Kanaka became the Honorary President of the Asian Women's Neurosurgical Association.

Helen Rodríguez-Trías, MD

In 1960, Rodríguez-Trías gave birth to her fourth child AND graduated from medical school with the highest honors. Throughout the 1970s, Dr. Rodríguez-Trías was an active member of the women's health movement and joined efforts to stop federal sterilization abuse, which was a commonly encouraged in marginalized communities. Rodríguez-Trías was a founding member of both the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse and the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse, and testified before the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare for passage of federal sterilization guidelines in 1979.

Susan La Flesche, MD
La Flesche was the first Native American woman in the United States to earn a medical degree. She graduated from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1889 as valedictorian. After graduation, she became a physician and spent her life serving the Omaha tribe, providing them with medical care.

Georgia E.L. Patton, MD
Patton was the first Black woman to become licensed as a doctor in Tennessee. Born into slavery in 1864, she was the only member of her family to graduate high school and then went on to earn her medical degree at the Meharry Medical Department of Central Tennessee College. With big goals for service to others, she left for Liberia immediately after graduation, where she served as a medical missionary for two years.

Ann Preston, MD

Preston was the first female dean of the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania which in turn was the first medical school exclusively for women. An advocate and activist, she campaigned strongly for her students, fighting for them to be able to participate in lectures and clinics alongside their male counterparts and for equality in the workplace.

Mary Walker, MD

Talk about juggling many hats! As the first female Army surgeon, Walker often crossed enemy lines during the Civil War to help the wounded. Not only did she prove herself on the battlefield, but she was also a women’s rights advocate, spy, abolitionist, and the only female to receive the Presidential Medal of Honor in the United States, an honor she holds to this day!

Jane Cook Wright, MD

When it comes to Wright, there is no shortage of accomplishments or inspiration. Not only was she one of the first Black women to graduate from Harvard, but she was also the first Black doctor on staff at a public hospital in New York City. Later, in 1964, she was appointed to the President’s Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer, and Stroke by President Lyndon Johnson. At the age of only 48, she a became professor of surgery, head of the cancer chemotherapy department, and associate dean at New York Medical College, making strides in the treatment of breast and skin cancer.

Carbon Health Editorial Team

The Carbon Health Editorial Team is a group of writers, content creators, and thought leaders who are here to empower you to take charge of your health.


Recently added