7 Famous Female Doctors That Shaped Medicine and Improved Millions of Lives

March 15th, 2019

by Marco Giuliani

These famous female doctors fought misogyny or stigma and managed to revolutionize medical care.

For a long time, the field of medicine was dominated by (largely white) males. Story was, if a woman wanted to become a doctor, or pursue any career path that was perceived as ‘’manly’’ for that matter, people either thwarted them in one way or another – like Dr. Taussig, who was barred from speaking to her male colleagues – or outright forbidden, like in Dr. Ross’s case.

Fortunately, these famous women doctors defied the social and racial prejudices that discouraged certain people from practicing science and went on to improve millions of lives through their research and discoveries.

1. Dr. Jane C. Wright

Achievements

  • Pioneer chemotherapy researcher
  • Introducing the use of methotrexate in the treatment of skin and breast cancer

Dr. Jane C. Wright descended from a renowned medical family that defied the social and racial barriers in a profession that was traditionally dominated by white men. For instance, Dr. Wright’s father was Dr. Louis T. Wright, one of the first black graduates of Harvard Medical School, and the first black doctor appointed to the staff of a New York City hospital. Her grandfather graduated from the Meharry Medical College, the first medical school in the South for African-Americans.

Coming from such a groundbreaking medical family, it’s no wonder Dr. Wright went to pioneer several medical fields. One of the biggest breakthroughs in cancer treatment was the development of chemotherapy in the 1940’s.

More specifically, she is credited with inventing a groundbreaking technique that involved using human tissue culture rather than laboratory mice to test the effects of potential drugs on cancer cells. Thus, she played a major role in elevating chemotherapy from a last resort treatment for cancer to the treatment that has the best shot of containing the disease. Another notable achievement is pioneering the use of methotrexate to treat skin cancer and breast cancer.

2. Dr. Gertrude B. Elion

Achievements:

  • Engineered drug treatments for leukemia, gout, malaria, viral herpes, and kidney transplant rejection

Born in New York City 100 years ago to parents Robert Elion and Bertha Cohen, both immigrants from Lithuania and Poland respectively, Dr. Gertrude B. Elion had an insatiable thirst for knowledge even as a child. While she displayed interest in all subjects equally, she decided to pursue science as a full-time vocation after her beloved grandfather succumbed to cancer.

After majoring in Chemistry and obtaining her bachelor’s degree, being 1937 and all, she hit a brick wall, professionally speaking, as no one took her seriously. In a field dominated by men, everybody wondered why a woman wanted to pursue a career in science at all.

She was then rejected by numerous graduate programs. However, nothing seemed to stop her as Gertrude took an unpaid position as a laboratory assistant as a backup plan. While studying, she supported herself by working as a substitute science teacher in New York City public schools.

Dr. Elion’s chance (if you can call it that) to break into academia came in 1941 when much of the country’s male population was sent abroad to fight in World War II. The lack of manpower to support the U.S’s war production forced employers to take women seriously. She soon grew bored with her work as an analytical chemist for a food company and switched to research in a science center outside New York City.

Together with biochemist George Hitchings, who fully supported her appetite for knowledge, she invented a new methodology that would soon prove quite revolutionary. Instead of relying on trial-and-error processes, they focused instead on analyzing the difference between healthy cells and pathogenic cells. They then engineered drugs that would target a particular pathogen.

As bland as it might sound, this new methodology led to some groundbreaking results. For one, by using this targeted method of testing, Elion played a major role in the development of mercaptopurine, a drug which changed childhood leukemia from a death sentence to a condition that many children survive.

She also engineered thioguanine, a drug targeted towards adults with leukemia, and co-developed azathioprine, which prevents the body from rejecting newly-transplanted kidneys. Her research has also led to the mitigation of conditions such as ulcerative colitis, rheumatoid arthritis, and played a key role in developing drugs that combat malaria, urinary tract infections, gout, and kidney stones. So, you know, nothing major or anything like that.

3. Dr. Gerty Cori

Achievements:

  • Paved the way to viable treatment options for diabetes.
  • The third woman – and first American woman – to win the Nobel Prize in science.
  • The first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Born Dr. Gerty Theresa Cori was the third woman – and first American woman – to win the Nobel Prize in science, and the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Dr. Cori was born in Prague, then part of Austro-Hungary, into a Jewish family in 1896. Her father, Otto Radnitz, was a career chemist who became the manager of sugar refineries after inventing an effective way for refining sugar. Her mother, a friend of Franz Kafka, was a socialite and culturally sophisticated woman.

She decided to pursue a career in medicine at the age of 16, but found out she lacked the prerequisites in physics, chemistry, mathematics and Latin. While most people would’ve understandably called it quits at this point, Dr. Cori recovered the equivalent of eight years of Latin, five years of science and five years of mathematics in a year.

While studying for her degrees, she met Carl Cori, an aspiring medical student who was impressed by her charm, intelligence and sense of humour. They married and moved to Vienna, Facing dire financial difficulties and increasing anti-semitism, they both decided to immigrate to the United States. They were both employed at the State Institute for the Study of Malignant Diseases (now the Roswell Park Cancer Institute) in Buffalo, New York.

Although discouraged to work together, they specialized in analysing carbohydrate metabolism. Together with her husband, she invested a large amount of her research efforts into biochemistry, metabolism and physiology. Their main interest was in how glucose is metabolized in the human body and how hormones regulate this process.

After years of work, Dr. Cori and her husband identified the enzyme that facilitates the decomposition of glycogen into glucose. Dr. Cori’s groundbreaking research, at times overlook in favor of her husband’s contribution, served as the basis for future viable treatment options for diabetics.

4. Dr. Helen Brooke Taussig

Achievements:

  • Invented the field of pediatric cardiology
  • Established the Blalock-Taussig-Thomas system

Dr. Helen B. Taussig was not only a renowned American cardiologist, but also one of the early leaders among women in American medicine. As an activist, she earned a well-deserved reputation as a staunch supporter of women in science and medicine. Her drive to promote women in the medical field and raise awareness about the discrimination that they faced came from personal experience.

She studied histology, anatomy and bacteriology at Harvard Medical School and Boston University, but both schools prohibited her from earning a degree. She was particularly discriminated against in her histology class, where she was prohibited from speaking to her male classmates of fear that she would, quote, ‘’contaminate’’ them.

As a doctor, researcher and scientist, Dr. Taussig made several breakthrough discoveries that shaped the field of pediatrics. For one, she invented and established the specialty of pediatric cardiology when she published Congenital Malformations of the Heart in 1949.

Together with Drs. Alfred Blalock and Vivien Thomas, she created the Blalock-Taussig-Thomas system that is used to prolong the lives of children born with tetralogy of Fallot – the most common cause for the condition that is popularly known as the blue baby syndrome.

5. Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

Achievements:

  • Pioneer in the study of death, dying and grief
  • Established the five phases that dying people experience – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance

Born in 1926 in Zurich, Switzerland, Dr. Ross’ career almost ended before it even started because her father forbade her from becoming a doctor – he told her that she could become either a secretary in his business, or a maid.

Little did he know that she had the makings of a brilliant scientist, and her dogged determination to pursue this career path helped her become one of the most famous female doctors in history. She left home at 16, and together with many brave women, served as a hospital volunteer during World War II. Six years after the war ended, in 1951, she finally enrolled in medical school.

famous female doctors - quotes by elisabeth kubler ross

Image Source: IPerceptive.com

Throughout her illustrious career in psychiatry, Dr. Ross focused particularly on terminal illness. Her groundbreaking book On Death and Dying, published in 1969, describes the five stages that dying patients go through, namely denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Her book revolutionized how the medical community approach terminally-ill patients, and helped improve end of life care.

Her research in the issue of terminal illness was inspired by several personal experiences that marked her for life. For one, she had a fragile health as a child – as a triplet, she weighed only two pounds when she and her siblings were born. The second experience that marked her was a visit to the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland, where she saw the hundreds of drawings of butterflies carved into some of the walls by the prisoners – this made her think about the issue of death and the fragility of life.

In 1962, she found work as a teacher at the University of Colorado Medical School. While working there, she was both disturbed and surprised at how terminally ill patients were treated in the United States and the fact that there was no subject addressing death and dying in the medical school curriculum.

One day, while she was filling in for a colleague at the University of Colorado Medical School, Dr. Ross brought in a 16-year-old girl who had terminal leukemia and prompted the students to ask her any questions. After the first round of questions, the patient experienced a meltdown and started asking questions that mattered to her on a human level, like what it was like not to have the chance to grow up to go to prom. These experiences inspired her later work and research on the subject of death and dying, which helped improve the conditions of dying patients and how terminally ill individuals are treated and perceived in general.

6. Dr. Audrey Evans

Achievements:

  • Pioneer in the study and treatment of childhood cancers, notably neuroblastoma,
  • Established the Evans Staging System,
  • Founded the original Ronald McDonald House for young cancer patients, and the Ronald McDonald Camp.

Born in York, England, Dr. Audrey Evans attended the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh in the early 1950’s – she was the only female student in the school. She came to the United States in 1953 as a Fulbright Fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital. At the same place, in 1957, she was one of the first people to conduct research on Autologous bone marrow transplantation, then a novel medical concept. She also conducted some of the first trials for chemotherapy agents such as vincristine and dactinomycin.

At some point during her illustrious medical career, she gained the moniker ‘’The Mother of Neuroblastoma’’ thanks to her work in the clinical treatment of this condition, the most common of childhood cancers.

In 1971, she developed the Evans staging system for neuroblastoma. This system facilitates the identification of patients who would fare well regardless of treatment. She was also an active proponent of sparing children from the pain, suffering, and devastating side effects of chemotherapy, if the stage and type of cancer didn’t justify this treatment.  

Her work and effort towards treating childhood cancers extended beyond the borders of the hospital, as she had a vital role in the creation of the original Ronald McDonald House in 1974, an organization which gives families of young cancer patients a place to stay while their children receive treatment. The project was extended to include the Ronald McDonald Camp in 1987.

7. Dr. Virginia Apgar

Achievements:

  • Established the Apgar Score, one of the first examples of evidence-based medicine,
  • Early pioneer in the field of anesthesiology.

Does your mother still bring up the fact that the doctor gave you a 10 at birth at family reunions, even if you’re well into your 30’s? Well, you can thank Dr. Virginia Apgar for that, as her invention inadvertently made her one of the most famous women doctors in history.

Born the youngest of three children in Westfield, New Jersey, Dr. Apgar knew that she wanted to become a doctor as soon as she graduated high school. Wanting to practice as a surgeon, she graduated from the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, where she completed a residency in surgery in 1937.

Seeing many women attempt to be successful surgeons and fail, Dr. Allen Whipple discouraged her from pursuing this career path. However, he encouraged her to pursue anesthesiology because he believed that advancements in this field were needed to develop surgery further. Dr. Whipple, who felt that anesthesiology will benefit from her ‘’energy and ability’’, made a wise decision when he guided her on this path, as she became one of the early pioneers in this field. She was the first woman to become a full professor at Columbia University of Physicians and Surgeons in 1949.

In 1953, Dr. Apgar established the Apgar score. An example of evidence-based medicine before the term was even invented. The Apgar Score was the first standardized tool to evaluate newborns and became the gold standard to evaluate the health of millions of babies since then.

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