5 Influential Women in American Healthcare You Should Know About

Nomi Health
Nomi Health
March 22, 2023

As the healthcare industry progresses and expands, women continue to join the field. Today, over 60% of those entering healthcare are women. This is a stronger female representation than in any other corporate industry in the U.S. This level of representation comes as a result of years of women blazing the trail to success.

Looking back through the history of healthcare women have worked toward critical advancements in newborn care, lifesaving surgery, infectious diseases, and more. We are focusing today on five important women who changed medicine for the modern world.  

1. Elizabeth Blackwell

Elizabeth Blackwell

A list of influential women in healthcare would not be complete without Elizabeth Blackwell. She was the very first woman in America to receive her medical degree.

Elizabeth was born in 1821. After she moved from England to Ohio in 1832, her father died and left her family in a dire financial predicament. To survive, Blackwell, her sisters, and her mother all began teaching to keep the family afloat. While teaching, a close friend of Blackwell’s died, inspiring her interest in medicine. However, no medical colleges at the time accepted women.

After many rejections, she finally received an acceptance to Geneva College. She endured discrimination throughout her studies, persevered, and graduated in 1849. Despite ongoing difficulty practicing as the first female doctor, Dr. Blackwell went on to open an infirmary for women and children, trained nurses during the Civil War, opened a medical college, became a professor of gynecology in London, and published several books.

2. Rebecca Lee Crumpler

Rebecca Lee Crumpler

Shortly after Dr. Blackwell’s success we find Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the first African American woman to earn her medical degree.

Crumpler was born in Pennsylvania. She was inspired to go into medicine after watching her aunt take care of those in her community during her childhood. As she grew, she moved to the Boston area and assisted doctors for eight years. Finally, medical education opportunities spread, and in 1860 she attended the New England Female Medical College as the only African American student.

After taking a hiatus to attend to her sick husband, Crumpler graduated with her degree in 1864. Shortly after, Dr. Crumpler moved to Richmond, Virginia to provide critical healthcare to formerly enslaved people. After working in Richmond, Dr. Crumpler moved back to Boston, treating patients in and around her home. She continued to work despite difficulty fulfilling prescriptions and a lack of admitting privileges to hospitals due to her race. She worked generously and dutifully until her passing in 1895.

3. Mary Edwards Walker

Mary Edwards Walker

With her time spent serving as a surgeon, spy, and abolitionist, Mary Edwards Walker has quite the resume. However, perhaps her most notable accomplishment is that she is the only woman to receive the Medal of Honor.

Walker was born in a household that greatly valued education. She attended school to become a teacher. Once she became a teacher, she worked to save money to attend medical school and graduated in 1855.

When the Civil War broke out, Dr. Walker traveled to Washington to be a medical officer. After initially being denied for being a woman, she instead turned to volunteer nursing and surgical work in war camps. During this time, she also created the Women’s Relief Organization with an emphasis on assisting families as they visited their family members in the hospital. Her work was recognized, and she eventually became the first female U.S. Army surgeon.

Her surgical work began to take her across battle lines, where she was eventually captured by Confederate soldiers as a possible spy. She was held as a prisoner of war for months before eventually being released.  

She was granted the Medal of Honor for her work by President Andrew Johnson.

4. Virginia Apgar

Virginia Apgar

Virginia Apgar blazed a new trail in the mid-1900s. She not only became the first full professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, but she also developed the first standardized testing for newborn health.

Apgar was a thoughtful and determined student. She pushed through the difficulties of the Great Depression to graduate fourth in her class at Columbia in 1933. She continued to advance by training as a surgeon under Dr. Alan Whipple. Dr. Whipple encouraged Apgar to research anesthesiology as he believed it was an area needing vast improvement.

Dr. Apgar spent months training in anesthesiology, specifically obstetrical anesthesia. This is when she developed the Apgar Score, an evaluation method measuring heart rate, respiratory effort, muscle, reflex, and color to determine newborns’ overall health. She also linked this test directly to the effects and usage of anesthesia during labor and birth.

Dr. Apgar went on to earn a master’s degree and pursued research into preventing birth defects. She won multiple awards for her work throughout her career.  

5. Ardis Dee Hoven

Ardis Dee Hoven

Ardis Dee Hoven continues women’s healthcare legacy into the present day. Dr. Hoven has not only served as the president of the American Medical Association (AMA), but she also became the first female chair of the World Medical Association (WMA).

After receiving her MD in 1970, Dr. Hoven became inspired to improve Americans’ access to healthcare during the AIDS epidemic in the 80s. This desire to expand health access and serve her community led her down a path of organized medical leadership. In 1993, she became a dedicated delegate to the AMA and served on a hospital’s foundation board.  

During her career, she also established a successful private medical practice and served as an infectious disease consultant in Kentucky. Her ongoing work with the AMA evolved into her becoming President of the AMA and an eventual chairperson of the WMA.

Dr. Hoven works as a professor at the University of Kentucky and as a director of the Harm Reduction Initiative in partnership with Kentucky’s department of public health.

The Next 100 Years

With two-thirds of those entering healthcare being female, and no gender gap appearing in promotion rates in healthcare, the trajectory and possibilities for women in medicine are endless. As society continues to support women in healthcare, they will continue to innovate and break new ground.