We continue our exploration of famous figures in healthcare, today we focus on famous women. These are some of our favorites, who inspired us at very young ages. Each of these influential individuals played critical roles in medicine. We want to recognize their contributions, which we still benefit from today.
Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross in 1881.
Clara Barton (25 December 1821-12 April 1912) served as a nurse in the American Civil War (1861-1865), despite not having any medical training. She began helping the wounded soldiers by providing bandages and other necessities. In 1862, Barton went to the war front. She traveled with the Union Army to tend the wounded, earning her the title “Angel of the Battlefield.”
Barton traveled to Europe in 1869, where she learned about the Red Cross of Switzerland. The International Red Cross had been established through the Geneva Treaty of 1864 (now better known as part of the Geneva Conventions, which provide international guidelines for humanitarian warfare). The Geneva Treaty outlined rules for tending to the wounded in wars. Determined that the US should join the Red Cross organization, she founded the American Red Cross in 1881. She served as the president of the organization until 1904, when she resigned at the age of 83.
Elizabeth Blackwell was the first American woman to earn a medical degree in the US.
Elizabeth Blackwell, MD (3 February 1821 – 31 May 1910) was accepted by Geneva Medical School, Geneva, New York, in 1847. She graduated with a medical degree two years later, ranking first in her class. After graduating, Blackwell studied in France and worked in England before returning to the US.
In 1853, she established a clinic in an impoverished neighborhood in New York City. When the American Civil war broke out, Blackwell organized the Women’s Central Association of Relief, which trained nurses to serve in the war. In addition, she created the U.S. Sanitary Commission because she felt sanitation and hygiene were critical, especially during a war.
Blackwell opened the way for other female doctors. With input from Florence Nightingale, in 1868 Blackwell opened the Woman’s Medical College. After she returned to England in 1869, she worked toward women being able to get medical degrees there as well. Finally, in 1876, legislation passed permitting women to obtain medical degrees.
Rebecca Crumpler was the first African American Woman to earn her medical degree in the US.
Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler, MD (8 February 1831 – 9 March 1895) applied to medical school in 1860. She gained her medical degree in 1864 and began practicing medicine in Boston. She specialized in serving women, children, and the poor.
During the American Civil War, Crumpler moved to Virginia to work for the Freedmen’s Bureau, a federal agency organized to help the newly freed slaves. Crumpler provided health care for newly freed African Americans, particularly the women and children.
Crumpler continued to serve the African American community after the war ended. She also wrote and published a medical text which was most likely the first one written by an African American. It wasn’t until 1989 that Dr. Crumpler was formally recognized for her groundbreaking career.
Marie Maynard Daly was the first African American to get her PhD in chemistry and worked with DNA and cancer cells.
Marie Maynard Daly (16th April, 1921 – 28th October, 2003) contributed to the medical community with her work in biochemistry. This included research on nuclear proteins, cancer, and hypertension. Daly pursued a Bachelors in Chemistry at Queens College. At the time, because of her good grades,Queens College granted her free tuition. She graduated in 1942 with a Bachelors of Science in Chemistry and was named a Queens College Scholar.
After securing funding, Daly began working at Rockefeller Institute. There she researched the composition and metabolism of cellular nuclei. Her work on purine and pyrimidine, in particular, provided critical building blocks to Watson and Crick’s later research on DNA.
In 1955, Daly left the Rockefeller Institute for the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. There, she taught biochemistry while also working as a research associate with Dr. Quentin B. Deming at Goldwater Memorial Hospital. While Daly continued to conduct cancer research and work with nucleic acids, with Deming she began researching heart attacks. Funded by American Heart Association, she researched heart disease and the causes of heart attacks.
In 1960 Daly moved her work to Albert Einstein College and there she encouraged African-American students in a number of ways. She developed and helped run the Martin Luther King-Robert F. Kennedy Program, which prepared African-American students for admission. She also worked to recruit both African-American and Puerto Rican medical students to Einstein. Dr. Daly retired in 1986 and passed away at the age of 82 in 2003.
Henrietta Lacks’ cancer cells became the first “immortal” human cell line, called HeLa Cells.
Henrietta Lacks (1 August 1920 – 4 October 1951) was an African-American woman with an aggressive type of cervical cancer. At the time, Dr. George Gey at Johns Hopkins hospital, where Lacks sought treatment, was seeking cancer cells he could keep alive in his laboratory for research purposes. Lacks’ cancer cells proved unusual in that they not only could be kept alive, they multiplied.
These cells, which Gey named HeLa after Henrietta Lacks, enabled a number of critical research projects. Scientists used them for research on vaccines, including the polio vaccine, as well as medical treatments for a range of disorders. Researchers used them to test how a wide range of things affect human cells, ranging from zero gravity to toxins. .
Gey’s use of Lacks’ cells raised a number of questions in research ethics, including consent and privacy. No one asked Lacks if they could use her cells for research. Nor was Gey careful about protecting her privacy. If he had, no one now would know whose cells had been used to create the line, or anything about her medical history. Today, scientists today are careful to get informed consent and to protect the privacy of research subjects. You can read our discussion on The Ethics of Consent for more information.
Florence Nightingale, a nurse during the Crimean War, revolutionized nursing and healthcare.
Florence Nightingale (12 May 1820 – 13 August 1910) led a corps of nurses caring for British soldiers during the Crimean War. She found terrible, unsanitary conditions at the military hospital. Disease was killing more patients than battle.
Nightingale organized a thorough cleaning of the facility, regular bathing of the patients, and a laundry for the patients’ sheets. She sought donations to enable the hospital to purchase essential supplies like bandages and soap. The soldiers called her “The Lady with the Lamp” because she routinely made rounds caring for the patients at night. Her changes reduced the death rate by 2/3rds.
Nightingale changed the face of Nursing through her dedication and example. Her work earned her great renown and financial support when she returned back home. She used the money to establish a hospital and the Nightingale Training School for Nurses. Nightingale backed her observations on the deadly effect of unsanitary conditions with statistics. Her work changed how the British handled military hospitals, but health care in general.
Here’s the list of our blogs for World Health Worker Week.
- Famous figures at the beginning of global healthcare.
- Important accomplishments by Healthcare Workers in Specific Diseases.
- Famous historical figures in research.
- Other famous and familiar names in the history of global healthcare.
- Cultural Firsts in the History of Medicine.
What can you do to help celebrate World Health Worker Week?
The World Health Organization (WHO) is probably more well known and heard of now, than it ever was before. Their job is to identify these situations and they have been helping and organizing the response to the Covid-19 pandemic from the start. Who better, to our mind, to look to for World Health Worker Week. The WHO has created a World Health Worker Week Portal and their focus for 2020 is Leaders on the Line. They hope to use the portal to help raise public awareness
Here are some ideas, from the World Health Worker Week Portal website “hosted by the Frontline Health Workers Coalition secretariat at IntraHealth International”. (WHO, 2020)
- Honor and thank health workers for their heroic efforts digitally with #WHWWeek.
- Share with your policymakers FHWC’s Recommendations to Policymakers on COVID-19. Tell policymakers not to restrict procurement of personal protective equipment and other supplies needed by frontline health workers in low- and middle-income countries and address other issues critical to health worker’s safety and support.
- In the US, call your member of the House of Representatives to support House Resolution 467 recognizing frontline health workers impact in saving lives and battling global health threats.
- Worldwide, donate and ask your governments to support the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund and the Working for Health Multipartner Trust Fund.
- Follow @FHWCoalition and #HealthWorkersCount beyond World Health Worker Week for more actions to support frontline health workers.
(This information is a direct quote from the Leaders on the Line World Health Worker Week Portal, 2020)
Thank you again, to all those on the Front Lines for helping fight the current crisis, but also for all the service you have given your communities, countries and the world over the years.
Galen & RoseAnna
The Researcher’s Gateway