Trailblazing Women in Healthcare: Honoring the Pioneers of Women's History Month

  • March 13, 2024

Throughout history, women have consistently emerged as pioneers in the healthcare field. From female physicians who developed groundbreaking assessments like the Apgar score to nurses who exhibited unwavering courage in saving lives during some of the most harrowing wars, women have continually demonstrated their invaluable contributions. Today, let's take a journey through time to celebrate the bravery and curiosity of these remarkable women and explore how they have reshaped healthcare for the better.

Elizabeth Blackwell, MD (1821-1910): In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell achieved a historic milestone by becoming the first woman in the United States to earn an MD degree. Despite initially being rejected from more than 10 medical schools and even being told by a professor to disguise herself as a man for acceptance, Blackwell was accepted to Geneva Medical College in New York. After obtaining her degree, she encountered significant challenges in finding employment. Undeterred, she continued to persevere. In 1857, she defied expectations by co-founding the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, cementing her legacy as a trailblazer in healthcare. [2]

Rebecca Lee Crumpler, MD (1831-1895): Rebecca Lee Crumpler made history as the first African American woman in the United States to earn an MD degree. After working for eight years as a dedicated nurse, she was accepted into the New England Female Medical College in Boston, Massachusetts. In 1864 she achieved a groundbreaking milestone, becoming the only black graduate in the school’s history. [2]

Florence Nightingale, Nurse (1820-1910): Florence Nightingale, often hailed as the founder of modern nursing, defied societal expectations of her well-to-do English upbringing to pursue nursing, feeling a calling from God. She received medical training at a Lutheran community in Germany, which laid the groundwork for her future advancements. Nightingale gained prominence during the Crimean War, where she and a team of volunteer nurses confronted appalling conditions in military hospitals, implementing innovative sanitation practices like handwashing with soap to reduce fatalities from diseases. Over the next four decades, Nightingale championed nursing as a profession, establishing the first professional nursing school and publishing "Notes on Nursing," an influential work that became essential reading for nursing students and caregivers. She also pioneered the use of statistics, utilizing graphical representations to demonstrate the impact of nursing improvements on patient health, leaving a lasting legacy in the field of healthcare. [3]

Susan LaFlesche Picotte, MD (1865-1915): After seeing a Native American woman die because a white doctor refused to care for her, Susan LaFlesche Picotte swore she would work to change this type of discrimination. Picotte would become the first Native American woman in the United States to earn a medical degree, graduating from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania at the top of her class in 1889. After years of treating the ill and also leading political reforms, she opened a hospital in the reservation town of Waterhill, Nebraska. [2]

Mary McMillan, PT (1880-1959): Following World War I, the invaluable contributions of reconstruction aides highlighted the significant role of physical therapists in healthcare. Recognizing the need to preserve their progress and maintain their group, Mary McMillan and her colleagues established the American Women's Physical Therapeutic Association (AWPTA). To lead this new organization, they conducted a thorough selection process, inviting candidates from both military and civilian backgrounds to participate. Mary McMillan was ultimately elected as the first president of the AWPTA in March 1921, with overwhelming support from members across the nation. In her inaugural address, McMillan expressed her commitment to upholding the trust placed in her by the members. The organization flourished under her leadership, with membership reaching 274 individuals from 32 states by the end of the year. [1]

Virginia Apgar, MD (1909-1974): Virginia Apgar revolutionized neonatal care by creating the Apgar score in 1953, a critical tool for assessing the health of newborns. Initially aspiring to be a surgeon after graduating from Columbia University in 1933, Apgar shifted her focus to anesthesiology due to a mentor's advice. She became the first director of Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital's anesthesia division. Apgar's interest in newborn health led her to develop the Apgar score, addressing the lack of guidance in assessing and treating infants. Later in her career, she earned a master's degree in public health and worked at the March of Dimes, advocating for birth defect prevention. Her contributions earned her praise from figures like former U.S. Surgeon General Julius Richmond, who credited her with significant advancements in maternal and infant health throughout the 20th century. [2]

Clara Barton, Nurse (1821-1912): Clara Barton, born in Massachusetts in 1821, displayed early nursing instincts when she cared for her injured brother during childhood. Drawn to nursing again during the Civil War, Barton tended to wounded soldiers in Washington, D.C., and later became a battlefield nurse, earning the nickname the "Florence Nightingale of America." After the war, Barton traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, where she learned about the Red Cross. Invited to start an American branch, Barton convinced President Chester Arthur that the organization would not only respond to wartime crises but also to natural disasters like floods and earthquakes. [3]

Gerty Theresa Cori, PhD (1896-1957): Gerty Theresa Cori was the first woman from the United States to win a Nobel Prize in science. Although she worked alongside her husband Carl as an equal, she was often not treated as such. The couple conducted biomedical research together, but Gerty was warned she would ruin her husband’s career if they collaborated. She did not listen, and the pair went on to publish dozens of papers together. Gerty and Carl delved into the body’s use of energy from food, coming up with the Cori cycle, for which they won the Nobel prize. [2]

Mary Eliza Mahoney, Nurse (1845-1926): Mary Eliza Mahoney, though not the first African American woman to serve as a nurse in the U.S., was the first to earn a nursing license. Facing significant obstacles in pursuing nursing education due to limited opportunities for Black women, Mahoney was admitted to a rigorous program at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, where she had previously worked in various roles. Graduating in 1879 alongside two others, she became one of the first Black nurses to complete the program. Mahoney's professional career primarily focused on nursing in private homes, where she earned praise for her efficiency and professionalism. She advocated for equal treatment of all nurses and co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses after splitting from the American Nurses Association over their failure to embrace nurses of color, aiming to create an inclusive organization for all nurses regardless of race. [3]


These remarkable women are just a glimpse into the vast array of individuals who have left an undeniable mark on healthcare. To all the women—past, present, and future—who tirelessly dedicate themselves to the field of medicine, we extend our deepest gratitude. Your unwavering commitment, sacrifices, and pioneering spirit enrich the lives of countless individuals and shape the future of healthcare for generations to come.

As we reflect on the extraordinary achievements of these trailblazers, let's continue to honor their legacies by sharing their stories and celebrating the women who inspire us. Who is your female role model in healthcare?


  1. American Physical Therapy Association. (n.d.). Mary McMillan is elected the first president of the American Women's Physical Therapeutic Association. Retrieved from
  2. Association of American Medical Colleges. (n.d.). Celebrating 10 women medical pioneers. Retrieved from
  3. Baylor University. (n.d.). 13 famous nurses who shaped world nursing. Retrieved from