In recent years, the ratio between men and women applying to medical school has gotten smaller and smaller as women face greater acceptance into this rigorous field. The number of practicing women continues to increase across all specialties, and we are beginning to see more diversity in medicine. Unfortunately, this is only a very recent trend; women are still achieving “firsts” in this field despite the first American female surgeon having practiced over 100 years ago. As this Women’s History Month meets its end, I wanted to honor some of the women who have inspired me to pursue medicine and stand as a reminder that “[W]herever it is proper to introduce women as patients, there also is it but just … for women to appear as physicians and students.”
Dr. Joycelyn Elders
Joycelyn Elders was born in 1933 in rural segregated Arkansas. Despite often missing school to work with her parents in the cotton fields, she earned a scholarship to attend the all-black liberal arts Philander Smith College in Little Rock. After college, she joined the Army and trained in physical therapy until her discharge in 1965. Utilizing the G.I. Bill, Elders enrolled in the University of Arkansas Medical School and then took an internship with the University of Minnesota. She returned to Arkansas for her residency and became chief resident of the all-white all-male residents and interns. She earned her master’s degree in biochemistry and became a professor of pediatrics at the university’s medical school.
Over the next 20 years, Elder published hundreds of papers regarding pediatrics and endocrinology. Governor Bill Clinton appointed Joycelyn the head of the Arkansas Department of Health in 1987 where she began to campaign for clinics and expanded sex education. Her lobbying led to a mandated K-12 curriculum that included sex education and substance abuse prevention. From 1987 to 1992, she nearly doubled child immunizations, expanded the state’s prenatal care program, and increased home-care options for the chronically and terminally ill. She was appointed U.S. Surgeon General but stepped down roughly a year later due to the controversy surrounding her progressive policies. She then returned to the University of Arkansas as a researcher and professor.
Dr. Antiona Novello
Antonia Novello was born in Puerto Rico and suffered throughout her childhood from a medical condition that could only be corrected by surgery. Her family could not afford more than interim treatment with a local hospital, but the condition was corrected after two surgeries at 18 and 20 years old. This experience encouraged her to become a doctor to help other sick children. She earned her medical degree from the University of Puerto Rico and later completed her medical training in nephrology at the University of Michigan where she was the first woman to be named Intern of the Year. She gained experience in pediatrics at the University of Michigan and Georgetown University. After years of private practice, she joined the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps where she became the deputy director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and focused on pediatric AIDS. She earned her degree in public health from Johns Hopkins University.
While on assignment with the U.S. Senate Committee on Laor and Human Resources, she helped draft legislation for the Organ Transplant Procurement Act of 1984. Her work with the National Institute of Health (NIH) lead to her appointment as U.S. Surgeon General where she focused on the health of young people, women, and minorities. She alerted the nation to the rising incidence of AIDS among women and adolescents and developed a report counseling against drug use and promiscuity, including information on cleaning intravenous needles and using condoms. She was awarded the Legion of Merit for expediting the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approval of vaccines for military personnel. After serving as Surgeon General, Dr. Novella became a representative of the United Nations Children’s Fund. In 1999, Governor George Pataki nominated her to be commissioner of health for the state of New York, where she now heads one of the largest public health agencies in the country.
Dr. Susan La Fleshe Picotte
Susan La Fleshe was born to Chief Joseph La Fleshe (Iron Eyes) and Mary (One Woman) on the Omaha Reservation in Nebraska. As a child, she had watched a sick Native American Woman die because a local white doctor refused to provide her care, she credited this tragedy as her inspiration to train as a physician. After being homeschooled for several years, Picotte was sent to the Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies in New Jersey and returned home years later to teach on the Omaha Reservation. While teaching, La Fleshe attended to the health of an ethnologist who urged her to return to school. La Fleshe enrolled at Hampton Institute, one of the nation’s first schools of higher education for non-white students.
The resident physician was a graduate of the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP) and encouraged her to apply. She was able to receive federal aid for her professional education through the U.S. Office of Indian Affairs and graduated a year early at the top of her class. She remained in Philadelphia to complete her internship and then returned to Nebraska to provide care to the Omaha people at the government boarding school. She later set up a private practice in Bancroft Nebraska, serving white and non-white patients. In 1913 she achieved her life-long dream by opening a hospital in the reservation town of Walthill, Nebraska; today the hospital houses a museum dedicated to the work of Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte and the history of the Omaha and Winnebago tribes.
Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey
Frances Oldham was born in 1914 on Vancouver Island, she earned both her Bachelor of Science and master of science degrees from McGill University. In 1938 she earned her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and later attended medical school there. In 1960 she moved to Washington, D.C., and began her career with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), where she later became chief of the Division of New Drugs. Her first assignment with the FDA was to review a sleeping pill already widely used in Europe, thalidomide. Kelsey had concerns with data suggesting dangerous side effects for those who took the drug repeatedly or while pregnant. She withheld her approval.
In 1961, reports began to emerge that mothers who had taken thalidomide during pregnancy were having babies with severe birth defects. Around half died within a few months of being born. Kelsey was able to aid in banning thalidomide in the United States by testifying before Senate. At least 4,000 children in Europe were affected by the drug, but this tragedy was averted in the United States due to Kelsey’s diligence. On Aug. 7, 1962, President John F. Kennedy awarded Frances Kelsey the highest honor given to a civilian in the United States, the President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service, she was only the second woman to have received this award. Kelsey helped shape and enforce amendments to FDA drug regulation laws to protect patients in drug investigations requiring the drugs be shown to be both safe and effective, that informed consent be obtained, and that adverse reactions be reported to the FDA. In 2000, Kelsey was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
These women faced much adversity and discrimination but were still able to become top of their field and contribute to medical knowledge and healthcare in ways that had long-lasting effects. I wanted to honor them for Doctor’s Day and Women’s History Month for their incredible work and for the influence they continue to have on women planning careers in healthcare.