Women’s History Month (every March) was officially passed by Congress as an annual event in 1987, sixty-eight years after the first Women’s History Day was held in New York City. Every year, the President of the United States issues a proclamation declaring March as Women’s History Month along with a statement about its importance. And each year, an official theme is declared for the month.
In 2022 the theme is “Women Providing Healing, Promoting Hope.” The National Women’s History Alliance explains that this year’s Women’s History Month theme is a tribute “to the ceaseless work of caregivers and frontline workers during this ongoing pandemic and also a recognition of the thousands of ways that women of all cultures have provided both healing and hope throughout history.” Since ancient times, women’s roles have included being healers and caretakers.
Celebrating Women’s History Month: Medical and Dental Occupation Firsts for Women
So this Women’s History Month let’s start the celebrations of women by looking at some of the women-firsts in the healing professions.
Florence Nightingale is considered the mother of the modern nursing profession. She was born in Italy to English parents in 1820, and her father taught her mathematics, language, philosophy, and religion. When she was 16, she said he heard the voice of God while she was walking in the garden and he called her to a specific mission: to care for the sick. Her parents were against this idea as nursing at that time was not considered a “decent” job.
Nightingale moved to Germany and France and worked as a hospital volunteer before returning to London in 1853 and managing a hospital called Institute of Sick Women. But when the Crimean war broke out, she moved to the military camps, where she used her mathematical abilities to record the mortality rates of the soldiers, which was 60%, from communicable and infectious diseases.
She understood ways to save lives: provide a clean environment, medical equipment and clean water and fruits. Eventually, this dropped the mortality rate to 2.2% and her work attracted the attention of Queen Victoria. Nightingale started the world’s first nursing school in 1860 and wrote the first book in nursing education and changed nursing into a respectful profession.
Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman in the United States to earn a medical degree in 1849 (from Geneva Medical College in western New York, after she was turned away from 10 schools and refused to disguise herself as a man to gain admission). Her thesis on typhoid fever was published in the Buffalo Medical Journal and it was the first journal article in a medical publication that was written by a woman. And as Samuel Sanes explains her paper showed empathy towards human suffering and advocacy for economic and social justice—viewpoints seen as “feminine” by the medical community. So after graduation, she struggled to find work. In 1857, she co-founded with her sister the New York Infirmary for Women and Children to serve people who were lower income. And she started giving lectures about the importance of educating girls.
Ten years after founding the hospital, Blackwell started the first medical college for women, called Women’s Medical College of New York Infirmary, in order to encourage and support other women who wanted careers in medicine.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first Black woman in the United States to earn a medical degree. Crumpler was inspired by the aunt who raised her and who took care of a number of ill neighbors. This led her into nursing for eight years. As she wrote in her book, A Book of Medical Discourses: In Two Parts, “I early conceived a liking for, and sought every opportunity to relieve the suffering of others.”
She studied at the New England Female Medical College and graduated in 1964, becoming the first African-American woman doctor of medicine in the United States. She practiced in Boston for a while before moving to Virginia after the end of the Civil War so she could care for women, children, and freed slaves.
Crumpler faced intense racism and sexism on the job and eventually moved back to Boston and practiced medicine and treated people (children in particular) without being concerned about the patients’ or parents’ ability to pay.
Syracuse University named the Rebecca Lee Pre-Health Society after her and the Rebecca Lee Society, one of the first medical societies for Black women, were named after her.
Susan LaFlesche Picotte experienced similar prejudice as Rebecca Lee Crumpler during her life. When LaFlesche Picotte was young she saw a Native American woman die because a white doctor refused to treat her. This daughter of an Omaha chief studied in New Jersey before teaching a Quaker school on the Omaha reservation.
An ailing ethnologist, Alice Fletcher, urged her to study medicine and so she did, being the first person receive federal aid for professional education. She graduated in 1889 from Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and becoming the first Native American Woman Doctor.
Afterwards she returned home and served more than 1300 people over the 450 square mile reservation. When she met her future husband and married in 1894, they moved to Bancroft, Nebraska, where she set up a private practice serving white and non-white patients. In 1913, two years before her death, she opened a hospital in the reservation town of Walthill, Nebraska, and that hospital today houses a museum dedicated to her work.
Lucy Hobbs Taylor was a teacher and a dentist and was the first woman to graduate from dental school (from the Ohio College of Dental Surgery) in February 1866. Originally she was denied access to dental school because of her gender so she apprenticed with a practicing male dentist.
She opened her own practice in 1861 and four years after she started her dental practice, she was allowed to join the Iowa State Dental Society. The society sent her as a delegate to the American Dental Association Convention in Chicago and that November (of 1865) she was finally admitted to dental college and attended only one session before they awarded her a DDS, recognizing her years of work.
These women paved the way for millions of others in the medical and dental industries. They were champions of change who wouldn’t let others define who they were or what they could do. To them we are grateful, during Women’s History Month and always.