History of Women in Medicine

Women have practiced medicine since antiquity even before the professionalization of modern medicine. Be it herbal remedies, alternative medicine, or midwifery, they have proved their natural roles as caregivers time and again, despite more numbers of men in the profession since ancient times. The history of women in medicine is long and wide, starting in ancient Greece till the present day.

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Ancient medicine

One of the earliest known women in medicine according to historical records is Metrodora, also known as Cleopatra Metrodora. She was of Egyptian origin and lived around the 7th century AD in Greece.

In addition to being an accomplished gynecologist, midwife and innovative surgeon Metrodora wrote several books. Her notable books are On the Uterus, Abdomen, and Kidneys and On Diseases and Cures of Women in which she explained the particulars of the diseases which commonly afflict women.

Another of her influential contemporary in ancient Greece was Aspasia (4th century AD). Metrodora and Aspasia climbed ranks of the medical field by performing innovative surgeries, such as an operation for uterine hemorrhoids, varicose veins, and cosmetic surgeries.

Merit Ptah is known as the first female doctor who was the Royal court’s chief physician in 2700 BCE in the Egyptian dynasty. Peseshet was another physician known as “Lady overseer of female physicians” in the Early Dynastic period in Egypt around 2500 BCE. She was cited as the first female doctor by name.

A lot of the women in medicine in the ancient world were left out of the official records even when the rest of the data and correspondence is well-kept. There are records of several women who practiced medicine by impersonating men. One such story is of Agnodice, she was known as the first female physician or midwife in ancient Greece (4th century BCE). She practiced medicine disguised as a man but was later found and tried for it. Her female patients protested her trial and she was acquitted. Following her trial, the law which barred women from practicing medicine in ancient Greece was also revoked.

Medieval times

In early 12th century Germany, Hilgard was a nun and healer who founded two convents. She took spiritual and physical care of everyone coming to the monasteries as it was the safe haven for the sick and downtrodden.

Once she gained autonomy after heading the convent at Ruperstberg she produced many scientific-medical texts. The texts are Liber simplicis medicinae (Book of Simple Medicine), and the Liber compositae medicinae (Book of Compound Medicine).

While in Italy, a small town called Salerno was a bustling center for learning medicine. Trotula of Salerno in the 11th or 12th century was known as the first female professor of medicine. Trotula also wrote an extremely essential book called On The Treatments for Women. This book was received well and was circulated widely throughout Europe.

Another milestone for women in medicine was achieved by Dorotea Bucca. In 1390, she succeeded her father as the Professor of Medicine at the University of Bologna. She held this esteemed station for the next 40 years.

Women in medicine in the late modern period

As the practice of medicine was beginning to professionalize during this period, numerous institutions for medical training were established. As a result of which women made significant progress in various medical professions such as midwifery and allied health professionals. One such illustrious career was of Martha Ballard. She was an accomplished American midwife who cultivated a diary with the entries of 816 childbirths transcribed from the year 1785 to 1812.

In 1849, the glass ceiling was shattered by the famed Elizabeth Blackwell. She graduated from Geneva Medical College to be America’s first women doctor. This was no easy feat; her presence at an all-male medical college was not received well. Few years after her graduation she established a dispensary in New York to treat poor women and children.

In 1857, the dispensary diminished function and she founded a hospital along with her sisters called New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. At this hospital, she hired other women in positions of power such as physicians and faculty.

Foundations were laid for several women’s medical colleges in the 19th century such as New England Female Medical College, Boston, (1848) and Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania (1850). In 1868, Elizabeth Blackwell established her medical college attached to her New York infirmary (Women’s Medical College of the New York infirmary).

Another notable woman in medicine is Sophia Jex-Blake who campaigned for women’s admission into medical colleges. For the first time in Britain in 1869, she and seven other women started their medical training at the University of Edinburgh. However, their degrees were revoked following protests. They continued their studies in other European universities.

In an essay written by Sophia Jex-Blake, she notes that even when women contain an instinct to care for the debilitated it is men who have dominated the profession of medicine. She declared a need for a fair field and no favors. In 1874, Sophia Jex-Blake established the London School of Medicine for Women and in 1886, she advanced to establish Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women.

Although women as a whole were advancing in medicine, the progress had been lagging for women of color. In 1864, Rebecca Lee Crumpler graduated from New England Female Medical College to be the first African-American to obtain an MD. Her publication Book of Medical Discourses is also the first medical text written by an African-American. Despite the relentless racism she received, she continued to treat the freed slaves after the civil war ended.

20th Century and the Women's Health Movement

After the tremendous gains women in medicine made in the 19th century the
momentum for advancement ceased in the early 20th century America. Uniform standards and specifications were set in place for medical schools. Many schools that admitted women closed down and with that the number of female medical students.

Only 4% of the medical students in 1914 were women. Since men enrolled in the armed forces during the world wars, the enrollment of women in medical colleges increased to some extent. After which it remained low till the Women’s Health Movement in the 1970s.

Several changes occurred in the USA during the Women’s health movement of the 1970s. Numerous women-managed health clinics were established throughout the country which provided care to women as opposed to the traditional systems of healthcare delivery.

Two laws were passed in the 1970s which furthered the women’s health movement and increased the number of applicants in medical schools. The Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 outlawed any discrimination based on sex in any educational institute receiving financial funding from the federal government. Another such act the Public Health Service Act of 1975 (sections 794 and 855) banned any discrimination on basis of sex in all government-funded health education establishments.

The recent trends

History was made in 1990 when Dr. Antonia Novello was appointed the role of surgeon general of the United States of America. Since then two other women have held this prestigious office.

In 2003, 50% of all medical school applicants were women, this number has doubled since the 1970s. By 2007, 48.3% of all medical school graduates were women. And in 2018, there were more women applicants and graduates than men. Even the number of applicants of women of racial and ethnic minorities saw a slight increase.

Despite more women graduating from medical schools, the number of women medical residents was less than men. In 2018, 54.4% of medical residents were male and 45.6% were female.

A fewer number of women constitute the school faculty. In 2018, only 41.4% of the medical school faculty were women as opposed to 58.6% of men. Despite the increase in the number of female department heads, they still constitute 18% of all.

According to recent statistics, 64.1% of physicians are male and only 35.8% are female. This phenomenon of women dropping out of academia at various stages such as postdoctoral and residency is called “The Leaky Pipeline”. Gender bias, salary gap, and gender harassment contribute to this leak, while family-work conflict playing a large role for the new generation of women doctors.

Being a woman in medicine

Conclusion

Through ups and downs, through centuries of discrimination, women in medicine have persisted and are continuing to do so despite a wage gap, widespread sexual harassment at the workplace, and family-work conflict. While equal rights for women in medicine exist in most countries there is a need for equal opportunities at every level of the medical profession hierarchy.

References

Further Reading

Last Updated: Feb 2, 2022

Akanksha Singh

Written by

Akanksha Singh

Akanksha has studied Dental Surgery from Bangalore, India. During her undergraduate degree, she was awarded the Best Student in Academics in 2016 and obtained University ranks in Microbiology and Pathology, and Conservative Dentistry.  

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