The first U.S. medical school for women opens

In 1848, Boston Female Medical College opened its doors with 12 students and two instructors. But the school’s creator was no feminist. Samuel Gregory, MD, established the institution because he believed it “unnatural” for male physicians to attend to women during childbirth. Within a few years, the institution expanded beyond midwifery and became the New England Female Medical College. Nearly 20 more medical schools for women were created in the United States between 1850 and 1895, fueled in part by the nation’s burgeoning feminism movement. By 1910, though, only two remained due partly to the growing numbers of formerly all-male medical schools that had begun accepting women.

Courtesy of Wikimedia
The first woman graduates from a U.S. medical school

Before being accepted to medical school, Elizabeth Blackwell, MD, was rejected by more than 10 schools for men — no schools for women yet existed — and she refused a mentor’s suggestion that she disguise herself as a man to gain admittance. Blackwell chose to pursue medicine after a deathly ill friend insisted that she would have received better care from a woman. Ultimately, she was admitted to New York’s Geneva Medical College due to a misunderstanding: Male students who were asked their opinion agreed to admit her because they thought the request was a prank. After graduating in 1849, Blackwell went on to cofound Manhattan’s New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children to serve low-income patients and support the training of women doctors.

Courtesy of National Women's History Museum
The first Black woman becomes a doctor

In 1864, Rebecca Lee Crumpler, MD, became the first Black woman in the United States to receive a medical degree. At that time, nearly all medical schools barred Black students, and out of 54,500 U.S. physicians, only 300 were women. Crumpler, who was inspired by an aunt’s caring for ill neighbors, first worked as a nurse before trying to enter medical school. She ultimately gained admission to Boston’s New England Female Medical College after doctors who knew her work wrote letters commending her. After the Civil War, Crumpler spent time treating formerly enslaved people in Virginia, where she faced both racism and sexism but felt even more motivated to care for those in need.

No photos of Rebecca Lee Crumpler are known to exist.

Courtesy of National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health
The first medical association for women is founded

When the Medical Women’s National Association launched in 1915, even women physicians themselves were not sure they wanted such an organization. Some spurned the increased visibility such a group would bring, and others argued instead for integration into the broader world of medicine. Founder Bertha Van Hoosen, MD, moved forward anyway, motivated partly by her frustration at being barred from membership in her local OB-GYN society. At first, the organization, now called the American Medical Women’s Association, attracted just 153 of the country’s 6,000 women doctors. But early projects — including a study revealing scant internship opportunities for women — soon proved the value of the group. World War I also fueled the organization’s prominence. Denied a request to serve in the U.S. Army, the group launched its own relief effort, and sent close to 130 women doctors, ambulance drivers, and other volunteers to serve in France, Greece, and elsewhere.

Courtesy of American Medical Women's Association
Women begin serving as physicians in the U.S. military

In 1943, for the first time in history, the U.S. military allowed women physicians to join its ranks. Previously, women doctors could contribute only as contractors. Between 1940 and 1945, the Army found its ranks ballooning from 267,000 to more than 8 million, and given the inadequate supply of physicians to serve them, leaders understood that they could ill afford to spurn women doctors. In May 1943, one month after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Sparkman-Johnson Bill into law, allowing women to receive Medical Corp commissions, Margaret D. Craighill, MD, became the first U.S. woman medical officer. She quickly developed medical policies for women recruits — who had begun volunteering as clerks, drivers, and more — including the need to check for pregnancy during enlistment screenings. She also spent eight months traveling the globe, inspecting military women’s living conditions in such places as Africa, Egypt, India, and China.

Courtesy of Legacy Center Archives, Drexel University
The number of women physicians grows exponentially

In 1960, less than 6% of incoming medical students were women. A decade later, that proportion had more than doubled — and the numbers have continued to climb since then. Crucial legal, social, and political factors fueled the change. In 1972, Congress passed the Title IX Education Amendment prohibiting any institution that receives federal funds from discriminating based on gender. In addition, the second wave of feminism was blowing across the country, with women heeding the call of such feminists as Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem to demand equal rights. The resulting demographic shifts were dramatic. From 1930 to 1970 — 40 years — around 14,000 women graduated from medical school. From 1970 to 1980 — just 10 years — over 20,000 did so.

Courtesy of Richard Nixon Foundation
A medical school creates the first Office for Women in Medicine

When researcher Phyllis Bodell, MD, surveyed two decades of women graduates of Yale School of Medicine in 1971, she heard of great challenges and impressive successes. One respondent shared her determination to forge ahead in her chosen field: “I plan to continue in a full-time academic position, hopefully until I drop dead,” she said. But another respondent, the mother of two young children, simply replied “Desperate” to a question about work and family. Soon, Bodell was spearheading a committee to discuss issues facing women students, and in 1975, Yale launched the first Office for Women in Medicine. Among its early efforts were providing job referrals, hosting support groups, and after a woman medical student was assaulted, sponsoring panels on rape and providing self-defense classes. It also established a library of materials focused on women in medicine.

Courtesy of Yale University Libraries
The first woman Surgeon General is appointed

The United States appointed its first Surgeon General in 1871. More than 100 years later, it installed the first woman in that position. The 1990 appointment of Antonia Novello, MD, also etched another milestone in the history books: the first Hispanic/Latina in that role. Prior to her selection, Novello climbed the ranks of the National Institutes of Health, catching the attention of President George H.W. Bush for her work on pediatric AIDS. In her role as the Nation’s Doctor, Novello launched campaigns to promote childhood immunizations, combat tobacco ads targeting children, and increase awareness of domestic violence. She also worked to improve health care for Hispanics/Latinos and other historically underserved groups.

Courtesy of National Library of Medicine
AAMC releases strategies for advancing women in academic medicine

In 2014, the AAMC published actionable guidance for recruiting, retaining, and advancing women in academic medicine. Based on survey responses from 117 U.S. medical schools, research by prominent scholars, and insights from institutions across the country, it provided in-depth data on the status of women in academic medicine and recommended essential supports, such as mentoring and ensuring more equitable distribution of resources. The publication, which followed decades of producing surveys and statistical reports on women, is part of the AAMC’s Gender Equity portfolio, along with toolkits and other equity-related resources. Recent reports focus on such crucial topics as sexual harassment, women of color, and the gender pay gap.

More women than men enter medical school

In 2017, for the first time in history, women entering U.S. medical schools outnumbered men — and that trend has continued every year since. Though the margin isn’t large, with women making up just over half of all matriculants, observers say increasing the ranks of women physicians offers numerous benefits. Research suggests that, on average, women physicians provide more preventive care, are more likely to follow clinical guidelines, and have better surgical outcomes than men, for example. In addition, they tend to use more patient-centered communication and are likely to spend more time with their patients.

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