8 Overlooked Female Medical Pioneers


Ready to name some important female medical pioneers? If you're not a med student or a historian, chances are that you came up a bit short, or at the very least, brought in some scientists to pad the numbers. (Yes, Marie Curie was awesome, but a doctor she wasn't.) But medicine has had some pretty amazing female practitioners in the course of its history, from women who dressed as men to become military doctors in the Crimean War, to ancient Italian experts on childbirth. But as important as these women are, most of their contributions remain criminally overlooked by most of us. Saturday, for example, is the 167th anniversary of the date when Elizabeth Blackwell became the first qualified female doctor in the United States. And chances are pretty reasonable that you've never even heard of her.

We've got to fix that. Women in many STEM fields continue to be under-represented, held back, have their achievements sidelined and are often basically informed that medicine is "for boys". And female doctors, even at their peak, earn on average 62 percent less than men of the same age. Undervaluing female medical skills is still common throughout the world, even though its far from fair.

So here are eight of the most important and influential women in medical history who've been drastically overlooked. Get these names in your brain and on your lips post-haste.

1. Trota Of Salerno (11th Century)

Trota of Salerno was, according to historians, a medical practitioner in Southern Italy in the 12th century who may have been behind a trio of medical texts called the Trotula, which dealt with subjects from menstruation, fertility and bladder control to cosmetic tips and cures for skin conditions. The texts range all over the place, with influences from Greek doctors like Galen and Arabic medical texts, and were seriously popular in the medieval world. We're not entirely sure what Trota's precise relationship with the texts was, but she's been synonymous with female medical knowledge in the medieval period ever since.

2. Jane Sharp (1641-71)

We know absolutely nothing about Jane Sharp as a person except for one thing: she wrote the definitive Renaissance guide to midwifery, The Midwives Book; or, The Whole Art of Midwifery Discovered, in 1671, and changed the position of women in medicine forever (the above image is an illustration from the book). It was a massive bestseller, went through many editions, and likely made Sharp a household name at the time. The book itself is practical and includes discussions of antenatal care and why male midwives with no knowledge of the female body were a bad idea.

3. Mary Seacole (1805-81)

Mary Seacole is an inspirational badass on about twenty different levels. Born in Jamaica to a Jamaican mother and a Scottish father, she faced racist and sexist discrimination all through her medical career. But did she let it stop her? She did not. After she travelled to London to offer her nursing services for the Crimean War and was turned away from Florence Nightingale's crew, she went to the front herself and dispensed medical care to both sides of the fight. In later life, she published a best-selling memoir and administered personally to the British Royal Family. In 2004, she was voted the greatest black British person in history.

4. Margaret "James Barry" Bulkely (1795?-1865)

James Barry was an excellent British Army surgeon who served across India and South Africa, and had a stand-out but not altogether odd career, except for one notable biographical detail: James was actually Margaret Bulkeley. Her well-to-do family had created a new persona to help her get a proper medical education and develop a career, and it's a damn good thing they did too: as "James", Bulkely performed one of the first Caesarian sections and, the Science Museum in London points out, had the highest recovery rate of any medic in the entire Crimean War. Incredibly, her true identity was only discovered by her peers upon her death in her mid-60s.

5. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917)

Funnily enough, the British counterpart to Elizabeth Blackwell decided to become a doctor after meeting Blackwell herself. She encountered sexist nonsense at basically every turn: she was removed from medical classes, passed a medical qualifying exam at a school that then changed its rules to ban women, and found it so difficult to find a job or be entered into the official medical register that she started her own hospital, now the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital, in London. Let Anderson be an inspiration the next time you get frustrated — don't get mad, get your own prominent medical institution.

6. Yoshioka Yayoi (1871-1959)

It turns out that starting a medical institution out of annoyance at sexism isn't actually uncommon: Yoshioka Yayoi did it, too. Hers, however, was called the Tokyo Women's Medical University, and it opened in 1900, 12 years before the Japanese government allowed women to actually practice medicine. Yayoi herself was also a suffragist for women's rights and worked on advancing the cause of female education in general throughout her life.

7. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895)

Rebecca Lee Crumpler has the amazing distinction of being the first African-American woman to become a qualified US physician, a feat she managed in 1864. She voluntarily moved to the American South to help with the medical care of freed slaves, women and children, even though the National Library of Medicine reports that she faced incredible racism and was frequently blocked from doing her duties properly. Eventually, she moved to Boston with her husband, wrote a book, A Book Of Medical Discourses, in 1883, and promptly entered history (though no images of her survived).

8. Susan LaFlesche Picotte (1865-1915)

A member of the Omaha people, LaFlesche Picotte was the first Native American woman to qualify as a physician. She used her skills to advocate on behalf of health care and land rights for her community, kept up her medical work after her marriage and the birth of her two children, became heavily involved in local politics, and crusaded for public health contributions to fight off tuberculosis. She did all this despite the fact that her "official" job on the Omaha reservation was only to medically care for the children at a government school.

Images: Wikimedia Commons (5), Wellcome Images (2), University of Stanford, Drexel Medical School Archives