10 Women Who Have Changed the Health World

March 24, 2023

As we continue celebrating Women's History Month, we recognize the strides many great individuals have made in the medical field to make this world safer and healthier. At Boynton Health, we're dedicated to women's wellness in all aspects of their lifestyles and strive to promote equity and inclusivity like these women have bravely done.

As we continue celebrating Women's History Month, we recognize the strides many great individuals have made in the medical field to make this world safer and healthier. At Boynton Health, we're dedicated to women's wellness in all aspects of their lifestyles and strive to promote equity and inclusivity like these women have bravely done. This month, we honor 10 trailblazers in healthcare and note their bravery which helps us #TakeCareofU.

  1. Elizabeth Blackwell

The first woman in America to receive a medical degree in 1849 and graduate at the top of her class, Blackwell, was dedicated to pursuing medicine to improve women's health. In 1851, she opened a small clinic to treat poor women and the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. Alongside her sister, Blackwell trained nurses in union hospitals throughout the Civil War. Blackwell also helped to find the National Health Society and was a beloved author. 

2. Mary Edwards Walker

Encouraged by her parents to think freely, Walker became the first female U.S. Army Surgeon During the Civil War. Often crossing battle lines for the betterment of all soldiers, Walker was the only woman to receive the United States Medal of Honor. She preferred men's clothing, which was hygienic and comfortable, and even wore pants at her wedding. She fought for dress reform and was arrested for dressing "like a man." Walker not once but twice ran for Democratic seats in both the Senate and Congress but lost both times. She was still remembered as the only woman to receive the Medal of Honor, wearing it until she died in 1919.

3. Dr. Dorothy Lavina Brown (Dr. D)

Dr. Dorothy Lavina Brown, a champion of humanitarian causes, was the first single woman in Tennessee to be granted the right to become an adoptive parent. She did not lack accomplishments, being the first Black woman to serve in the Tennessee state legislature and the first Black woman surgeon in the South. Brown grew up in an orphanage until 13 and graduated high school at the top of her class. She attended Bennett College, graduating second in her class. Her determination, merit, and values shattered barriers in her medical career. 

4. Clara Barton

Despite no formal medical training, the 'angel of the battlefield' was named the head nurse during the Civil War. Barton worked to prepare enslaved people for their lives after the war and to locate missing soldiers, even testifying in Congress about her wartime experiences. In 1881, she created the American Association of the Red Cross soon after joining it. Avidly supporting women's suffrage, Barton also aided the homeless, the poor, and those affected by disasters. In 1904, she formed the National First Aid Association of America, which teaches emergency preparedness and produces first aid kits. 

5. Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte

As a child, Picotte witnessed a sick woman dying after being denied care by a local white doctor. Inspired by this traumatic event, Picotte was the first person in the United States to receive a medical degree. She has provided care for over 1,300 years throughout her career. She offered financial counseling, resolved family disputes, and provided medical care for those in need around the clock. She graduated to the top of her class in 1889 and set up a private practice in Nebraska, serving white and non-white patients. She lobbied for prohibition and opened her hospital. 

6. Dr. Jane Hodgson

Overwhelmed with patients struggling with reproductive health, she began early research on pregnancy testing methods in 1952. Traveling to hospitals in Tanzania, Peru, Educador, and Nicaragua, Hodgson realized that a woman's place in society was directly related to the availability of abortion, contraception, and family planning services. In countries where it was all illegal, women were much worse off regarding their overall rights, health care, and poverty levels." A University of Minnesota Medical School alumna, Hodgson was the first doctor convicted of performing an abortion in a hospital in 1970. She challenged Minnesota Law, leading to the critical case of Hodgson v. Minnesota. Hodgson was among the first to be inducted into the American Medical Women's Association Hall of the Fame of International Women in Medicine. 

7. Henrietta Lacks

Some claimed that her cells were one of the "most important things to happen to medicine in the last hundred years," Henrietta Lacks, a black woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951. Included in a diverse group of patients who unknowingly donated cells to John Hopkins in 1951, right before her death, Lacks' contribution was the first and only human cell line able to reproduce indefinitely for several years. Her cells, studied as HeLa, representing the first two letters in her first and last name, continue to be used in research worldwide. They have been used in experiments to determine the long-term effects of radiation and the efficacy of polio vaccines. However, medical researchers have commercialized and patented their cells, which spawned millions of wealth. The Lacks family was unaware of cell culture for over 20 years after her death. 

8. Dr. Ruth Westheimer

Famous for her small stature and feisty attitude, Dr. Ruth Westheimer pioneered the field of media psychology via her radio program, Sexually Speaking. Colloquially known as Dr. Ruth, she expanded her empire through the vast media landscape with over 45 books, newspapers, and even computer software. Escaping Nazi Germany in 1939, Westheimer was sent to a children's home in Switzerland before joining the Jewish freedom fighters at 17. Not once but twice being named 'College Lecturer of the Year,' she spreads what she calls 'sexual literacy' with her unique style. Dr. Ruth has impacted those all over the world through her teachings. 

9. Dr. Rachel Levine

Becoming the highest-ranking openly transgender government official in U.S. history in 2021, Rachel Levine has helped those with various medical issues, from eating disorders to COVID-19. Levine grew up immersed in the Jewish community before graduating from Harvard College, focusing on pediatric medicine. In her 40s, Levine explored her gender identity and had fully transitioned by 2011. She spearheaded initiatives for adolescent and young adult eating disorder programs at the Penn State Hershey Medical Center. She crafted the 'Levine Policy,' which protected gender identity and expression in the facility's non-discrimination policy. In 2021, President Biden nominated Levine as Assistant Secretary for Health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She serves as the first-ever female four-star admiral. 

10. Margaret Sanger

Driven by the cycle of women's poverty, Sanger firmly believed that the ability to control the size of one's family was critical in the fight. Sanger made it her pursuit to provide women with birth control information and repeal the Comstock Law, which prohibited dispensing obscene material in the mail that included birth control information. In 1914, Sanger established her feminist publication, The Woman Rebel. Promptly charged with violating the Comstock Law, she stood trial before her five-year-old daughter died unexpectedly, and the charges were dropped. Later, she opened the first birth control clinic in Brooklyn despite being arrested shortly after. Throughout her life, she fought tirelessly to advance birth control. Unfortunately, Sanger was linked to the eugenics movement, despite disagreeing with the racial and class focus of the movement.

Written by: Gracie Kibort

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