When it comes to women in healthcare, there are many inspirational female doctors and researchers who have made an impact on the world of medicine. From pioneering doctors like Elizabeth Blackwell to modern-day scientists like Youyou Tu, countless women have contributed to our understanding of how the body works and what we can do to keep it healthy.
In Honour of International Women’s Day, we’re celebrating the accomplishments of famous women in healthcare!
Marie Curie is one of the most famous scientists in history. She was a physicist and chemist of Polish origin who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity. She discovered radium and polonium, contributing hugely to the science of radiology. The first woman to win a Nobel Prize, she is also only the only person to win Nobel Prizes in two different sciences—physics and chemistry (the only other person to win two Nobel Prizes is Linus Pauling for chemistry and peace).
Marie worked tirelessly throughout her life to advance women’s rights, science education, and medical research. In order for her to become the first woman to obtain a Doctor of Science in Europe, she first had to study illegally in Poland before relocating to France, where she pushed through systemic sexism as well as language and financial barriers to complete her education. She was also the first female professor at Sorbonne University in Paris. She was a pioneer, paving the way for many other female researchers and health professionals who have worked since in radiation oncology.
In 1911, she opened the Radium Institute which treated people suffering from cancer with radioactive substances that were discovered by herself and Pierre. During World War I she and her daughter used x-rays to help an estimated million soldiers, even training 150 women how to operate the equipment while she herself drove to help wounded soldiers on the frontlines. Even more, she refused to patent the refining process of radium so that she did not receive what would otherwise have been considerable profit, as she wanted it to be used widely for the public good.
Virginia Apgar was the first American woman to be a full-time anesthesiologist. She was born in Westfield, New Jersey in 1909 and attended Mount Holyoke College and Columbia University Medical School.
Apgar became one of the first doctors to use a system to score newborns on their health immediately after birth. This system is still used today, as it helps doctors decide whether or not a newborn needs immediate care. The scoring system gives each baby a 1 to 10 score based on five criteria: heart rate, respiratory effort, muscle tone, reflex response, and colour.
Florence Nightingale is the most famous nurse in history. She was born in 1820 to a wealthy family but chose to become a nurse rather than marry or take care of her family’s estate. She was an advocate for women’s rights and healthcare reform.
In the early 1850s, she worked in a hospital in London where she made it her mission to improve the practices of hygiene, thus significantly improving the health outcomes and lowering death rates. When she was called to organize a corps of nurses to attend to the fallen British soldiers of the Crimean War, she was shocked to discover that the hospital was sitting in a cesspool of contaminated water with patients in extremely unsanitary conditions, more likely to die from infectious diseases than from their battle wounds. She quickly changed that and with her intense work ethic reduced the death rate at that hospital by two-thirds.
Though she contracted “Crimean fever” and never fully recovered, she later funded the starting up of St. Thomas’ Hospital in London, England, as well as the Nightingale Training School for Nurses. Because of her, nursing became an honourable vocation that inspired many women to follow in her steps. In 1907 she became the first woman to be made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE).
Elizabeth Blackwell is a celebrated pioneer in the world of medicine. Born in England, she moved to the United States after her father died. She was determined to become a doctor, but her gender was an obstacle.
Elizabeth graduated from Geneva Medical College in 1849 and became the first woman in America to earn a medical degree. She opened a clinic in New York City where she treated poor and immigrant women free of charge. Her work helped her gain respect among her peers. In 1857, she founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children which is still open today as part of Beth Israel Medical Center and provides free care to women who cannot afford healthcare services.
Youyou Tu received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2015 for her research on a novel therapy for malaria. In the 1970s, Youyou discovered and extracted a substance called artemisinin from the herb sweet wormwood. Artemisinin inhibits the parasite that causes malaria and its discovery and use in modern drugs has led to the improved health and survival of millions of people worldwide.
Youyou got into medical research because of her own experience. As a sixteen-year-old child, she contracted tuberculosis and had to take two years off from high school to recover. She wanted to learn how to keep herself healthy as well as help others. In addition to her studies in pharmacy from a Western medical perspective, she also learned about plants and later expanded her studies into a full-time training program on Chinese medical theory and practice.
As an interesting coincidence, her father named her “Youyou” because of a famous poem that includes the mention of the sweet wormwood plant.
I’ve taken to sometimes calling the herb reishi Queen Reishi because of its unique contribution to our natural health pharmacy. This amazing mushroom is an adaptogen that helps prevent and treat a wide range of conditions. Once reserved for royalty, it is one of the rare herbs that instead of needing to be included in a formula of multiple herbs, may be prescribed on its own by Traditional Chinese Medicine herbalists.
Red reishi’s main use in TCM is to calm the nervous system, a Yin/feminine action. It can also improve function of the lungs, heart, liver, and kidneys, while balancing a healthy immune response.
So, raise your reishi-infused hot-chocolate-filled mug to International Women’s Day!