Women Leaders in Medicine: Pioneers in Promoting Public Health

Padmini Murthy, M.D., M.P.H., M.S., FRSPH, FAMWA, is Professor and Global Health Director at New York Medical College School of Health Sciences and Practice, Global Health Lead for American Medical Women’s Association and Chair of the International Health Section for the American Public Health Association.

March is Women in History Month. The terms “women have broken barriers” or “shattered the glass ceiling” often describe women achievers and pioneers in various disciplines. Some of these women have overcome gender discrimination, violence, or personal and professional inequalities, and have made noteworthy contributions in many disciplines including medicine and public health. In my roles as a physician, public health professional and educator, it is important to remember these points throughout the year—not just during the month of March.

Women Physicians in the United States

Early Pioneers 

  • In 1849, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwellwas the first woman in the US to receive a medical degree. Her work as a visionary was instrumental in laying the foundation for integrating clinical medicine and public health.
  • Berta Van Hoosenwas an outspoken physician and the founding President of the American Medical Women’s Association, the vision and voice for women in medicine since its establishment in 1915. The organization has been working on projects locally and globally to improve the health of the communities by addressing the ongoing public health challenges.
  • Rebecca Lee Crumplershattered the glass ceiling in more ways than one as the first African woman to earn an M.D. degree and practice as a physician in the United States.
  • Mary Edwards Walkerwas a woman surgeon in the U.S. Army. She was a staunch feminist and had the unique distinction of being the only woman recipient of the Medal of Honor bestowed upon her for her service during the civil war.
  • Susan La Flesche Picottehas the unique distinction of being the first American Indian woman to receive her M.D. degree. She worked tirelessly to improve the public health of her community on the Indian reservation in Omaha.
  • Alice Hamiltonwas a pioneer in promoting workers’ industrial health and safety in the 1890s. She was appointed as the first woman to the faculty at Harvard University.

Present Day Pioneers 

  • Antonia C. Novellowas the first woman to be appointed Surgeon General of the United States in 1990. She was a key player in launching the Healthy Children Ready to Learn Initiative, a Public Health Initiative. Her other initiatives focused on preventing childhood injuries and promoting childhood immunization.
  • Joycelyn Elderswas the first African American to serve as Surgeon General and was a strong proponent of universal health coverage.
  • Regina Benjaminwas the second African American Woman to serve as Surgeon General of the United States. She played a vital role in implementing the National Prevention Strategy in 2011, which focused on incorporating wellness and prevention to improve the health status of Americans nationally.

The role of women physicians worldwide has evolved from obscurity since medieval times to being recognized as leaders who have made a difference in promoting the health and well-being of their communities.

Interestingly Women’s History Month had its origins as a national celebration in 1981 when Congress passed Pub. L. 97-28 which authorized and requested the then US President Ronald Reagan to issue a proclamation designating the week of March 7, 1982, as “Women’s History Week.”

As we celebrate women’s history month, let us appreciate and acknowledge the women physician brigade in the United States who work tirelessly to promote public health locally, nationally and globally.







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