To celebrate women’s history month in March, I wanted to highlight three of the amazing women who helped shape modern medicine. These women embody the strength, resilience, and intelligence of women who made their mark in a male-dominated field.
The first woman I would like to feature is Florence Nightingale. Florence is known for being the founder of modern nursing, but she was also a social reformer and statistician. Born in 1820 in Florence, Italy, Florence was described as strong-willed and had always shown an interest in philanthropy. By 16 years old, Florence knew that she wanted to be a nurse and believed it was her divine calling. After completing classes at the Lutheran Hospital of Pastor Fliedner in the early 1850s, Florence returned to London where she took a job in Middlesex Hospital and was quickly promoted to superintendent, a rarity for women to achieve at the time. Despite this win, Florence struggled with a cholera outbreak working in unsanitary conditions. Through experiencing these dire circumstances, Florence made it her mission to improve hygiene practices in the hospital, and in time, significantly lowered the death rate at her hospital.
In October of 1853, the Crimean War started, and soldiers were rapidly flooding the military hospitals. During this time, the British military did not employ female nurses. However, due to an uproar about neglect and ill-treatment of the wounded, the Secretary of War asked Florence to organize a corps of nurses to tend to the sick and fallen soldiers in Crimea. Florence rose to the occasion by quickly assembling a team of 43 nurses, who then sailed off to Crimea.
Florence and her team got to work; cleaning and sanitizing the military hospital and caring for the soldiers. While in Crimea, Florence wrote her signature work, “Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency and Hospital Administration of the British Army”, a report evaluating her experience working in poor conditions and proposing necessary reforms. Utilizing her experience as a statistician, Florence was able to analyze the data from her time in the Crimean War to exemplify how much significantly lower mortality rates were in sanitized conditions compared to that of a war/un-sanitized hospital. This report, with the support of Queen Victoria, would later help establish a Royal Commission for the Health of the Army in 1857. Florence fell ill in 1910 and later died in her home in London. Florence’s legacy lives on today in modern medicine and created a surge of women who wanted to join this noble, life-saving career.
Dr. Rebecca Crumpler
The next woman I would like to highlight is Dr. Rebecca Crumpler. Dr. Crumpler was the first African American woman to earn an M.D. degree in the United States. Her heroic career challenged the doubled prejudice faced by both African Americans and women in medicine, setting the stage for a countless number of careers to blossom after her.
Dr. Crumpler was born in 1831 in Christiana, Delaware. In Dr. Crumpler’s early life, she lived with an aunt in Pennsylvania who spent most of her time tending to sick neighbors. Inspired by seeing her aunt help those in need, Dr. Crumpler chose her career path. In pursuit of her dreams, Dr. Crumpler moved to Massachusetts in 1852, working as a nurse for eight years. In 1860, she was admitted to New England Female Medical College (which later merged with the Boston University School of Medicine in 1873). In 1864, Dr. Rebecca Crumpler graduated and made history in receiving her Doctress of Medicine.
After practicing in Boston, Dr. Crumpler moved to Virginia at the conclusion of the Civil War. She joined other physicians in caring for recently emancipated African Americans who would otherwise not have access to medical care. Throughout her career, Dr. Crumpler treated men, women, and children alike, regardless of their ability to pay. Unfortunately, deep-rooted racism and sexism inhibited Dr. Crumpler’s full capabilities as an M.D., as she often experienced ridicule from other physicians and administrators, a lack of admitting privileges in local hospitals, and trouble having prescriptions filled for patients. Nonetheless, Dr. Crumpler’s passion towards her craft and compassion for others encouraged generations of people of all races to find a purpose through medicine. Her “Book of Medical Discourses”, is believed to be the first-ever medical text written by an African American Author.
Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte
Our third and final spotlight is Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte, who is famously known as the first Indigenous American woman to receive a medical degree. Dr. Susan La Flesche was born in 1865 on the Omaha Reservation in northeastern Nebraska. As a child, she watched a sick native woman die because a local white doctor would not give her care. Due to this tragedy, Dr. La Flesche decided to become a physician so she could provide care to people on her reservation.
Dr. Susan La Flesche started her career by enrolling in the Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies in New Jersey. She then returned to Nebraska to teach at the Quaker Mission School. While teaching Dr. La Flesche attended to the health of an ethnologist Alice Fletcher. Alice encouraged Dr. La Flesche to return to the east coast and continue her degree in medicine. With this advice, Dr. La Fleschs enrolled at Hampton Institute, one of the nation’s finest schools for non-white people. While there, she was further encouraged to apply to the Woman’s Medical College. Such a college was difficult to get into even for the most prestigious women in the country, let alone an Indigenous American. Once again with the help of Alice, Dr. La Flesche was able to obtain a scholarship to attend. In 1889, after completing her program early and finishing atop of her class, the newly distinguished Dr. La Flesche was offered an internship in Philadelphia.
Despite being offered a promising career on the east coast, Dr. La Flesche returned home to provide care to the Omaha tribe, where she was responsible for approximately twelve hundred people at only 24 years old. In 1894, Dr. La Fleschs married Henry Picotte and moved to Bancroft, Nebraska, where Dr. La Flesche Picotte set up a private practice. She offered her skills to anyone who needed help, despite their race. Two years before her death, Dr. La Flesche Picotte opened a hospital in Walthill, Nebraska, which today houses a museum dedicated to her person, work, and history of the Omaha and Winnebago tribes.
It is absolutely important during this month that we look at all the women who inspired and shaped a field that has been unfavorable to them. These women persevered and followed their dreams, providing ample care to any who needed it, even when no one else would. This month of March, we will celebrate these women, the countless others who helped shape modern medicine, and those to come.
Author: Lindsey Oswalt
Dr. Crumpler: https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_73.html
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler | National Women’s History Museum (womenshistory.org)
Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte: https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_253.html