Primal Instinct: Top 10 Most Badass Female Physicians in History

December 26th, 2011

These women are the trailblazers of my soon-to-be profession….

1. Merit-Ptah (2700 BCE) practiced in Ancient Egypt nearly five thousand years ago. Little is known about her, but she’s credited as the first female physician. (5000 years ago!)

2. Trotula (11th CE) is the first known gynecologist. She was also a professor at Italy’s Medical School of Salerno. She taught her male students – and male colleagues – about pregnancy and menstruation. She also combated the prevailing Christian notion that painful childbirth is necessary punishment for Eve’s sins. In fact, she advocated the use of opiates during labor. Her 63-chapter Passionibus Mulierum Curandorum (The Diseases of Women) was the gold standard of gynecology for centuries to come.

3. Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910), the first American female physician, earned her medical degree in 1849. Eight years later, Dr. Blackwell and two of her female colleagues opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children.

It all began with Merit Ptah….


4. Mary Putnam (1842-1906) was the first female member of the Academy of Medicine. She was also an outspoken suffragist and women’s rights activist. She wrote several scientific papers, including one that refuted the notion that menstruation renders women weak. And, chillingly, she wrote a paper entitled Description of the Early Symptoms of the Meningeal Tumor Compressing the Cerebellum. From Which the Writer Died. Written by Herself. (Wow.)

5. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895) was the first African-American woman to receive a medical degree. In 1864 – a year before the Civil War ended – she graduated from the New England Female Medical College. Along with other black physicians, she treated freed slaves, who otherwise would not have received healthcare.

6. Anandi Gopal Joshi (1885-1867) was the first Indian woman to receive a so-called “Western” medical degree. Like many women on this list, Joshi’s educational journey was filled with obstacles. Her fellow countrymen/countrywomen disapproved of her desire to seek Western education. Westerners, on the other hand, disapproved of her Hinduism. Eventually Joshi was able to persuade Indians and Americans that she was worthy of studying Western medicine. She graduated from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1866, at the age of 21, and returned to India. Tragically, she died of tuberculosis at the age of 22.

Dr. Gopal died too young….


7. Marie Equi (1872-1952) received her MD in 1903 from the University of Oregon. She was a physician, an activist, a humanitarian, and a radical. She performed abortions for women in need, regardless of their socioeconomic status. She educated the public regarding birth control. She provided healthcare services to victims of earthquakes and fires. She lived openly as a lesbian. With her partner, she adopted a baby girl. She gave anti-war speeches before the start of WWI, and in the chaos of the Red Scare, was imprisoned for 10 months. Birth control advocate Margaret Sanger described Equi as “a rebellious soul.” (Oh, hell yeah.)

8. Virginia Apgar (1909-1974) was an anaesthesiologist who, in 1952, devised a system for evaluating newborn babies’ health. Known as the Apgar Score, her system evaluates an infant’s heart rate, respirations, muscle tone, reflexes, and color. Ten years later an acronym was created as a mnemonic for Apgar’s original scoring system. The acronym, APGAR, is still used today. (It stands for activity, pulse, grimace, appearance, respirations.)

A special shoutout to the great Rosalind Franklin….


9. Bernadine Healy (1944-2011) was the first woman to head the National Institutes of Health. She raised awareness about several women’s health issues, including cardiovascular disease – an ailment previously thought of as a “men’s disease.” She later headed the American Red Cross and led the organization’s 9/11 relief efforts. She was known as the “short-tempered diva of biomedical research.” (Imma Imma uh-diva.)

10. Antonia Novello (1944- ). Born in Puerto Rico, Dr. Novello was the first Hispanic and the first woman to serve as the U.S. Surgeon General. She served her post from 1990 to 1993. She later served as commissioner for the New York State Department of Health. She is committed to providing health care to women, children, and minorities.

Honorable mention: Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958). She wasn’t a physician, so I can’t actually include her on this list. She was, however, a trailblazing female scientist. She earned her PhD in physical chemistry from Cambridge in 1945. Along with the infamous Watson, Crick, and Wilkins, Dr. Franklin worked to discover the structure of DNA. Specifically, she took the first photograph of DNA’s double helical structure. Watson and Crick later used this photograph – without Franklin’s knowledge – in their seminal 1953 paper about DNA’s structure. The work of these four scientists forever changed the biological sciences. Watson, Cricks, and Wilkins received the Nobel Prize in 1962 for their work. Sadly, the Prize cannot be awarded posthumously. Franklin, who died of ovarian cancer in 1958, never received the recognition she so deserved. (Too bad, ‘cause she was a total badass!)

Editor’s Note: This is Primal‘s first post for The Third City….

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