Women have been essential to health care for centuries, and their legacy has paved the way for the women and providers of today. In honor of National Women’s History Month, we're recognizing and celebrating the fundamental contributions women have made to modern medicine. Here are some of the most influential women in medical history.
Florence Nightingale (1820 – 1910)
Florence Nightingale became a pioneer of modern nursing through her work tending to wounded soldiers during the Crimean War. She implemented hygiene practices— including hand-washing, baths for patients and clean facilities—in the army hospitals she worked in. These practices resulted in dramatically lower hospital mortality rates. Her practices transformed modern nursing by bringing about sanitation and safety standards for hospitals and medical care facilities that we still use today.
Elizabeth Blackwell (1821 – 1910)
Elizabeth Blackwell was the first American woman to earn a medical degree. Throughout her career, she trained nurses during the Civil War and founded an infirmary in New York for underprivileged women and children. In 1874, she helped establish a medical school for women in Britain, opening the doors for more to follow in her footsteps and pursue careers in health care.
Pearl Kendrick (1890 – 1980) and Grace Eldering (1900 – 1988)
You’re probably aware of vaccine pioneers like Edward Jenner and Jonas Salk, but women have also played a vital role in laying the groundwork for modern immunization. Drs. Eldering and Kendrick researched and developed a vaccine for pertussis (whooping cough), resulting in the introduction of the first vaccine against the disease in the United States in the 1940s. Following this development, they combined this vaccine with the vaccines for diphtheria and tetanus into a single immunization.
Dorothy Horstmann (1911 – 2001)
Dr. Horstmann was an epidemiologist, virologist and pediatrician whose research was fundamental to developing the polio vaccine. Her research on the spread of poliovirus in the bloodstream showed that the virus reaches the brain through the blood, leading to further research into a possible vaccine. Polio is almost eradicated, with cases down by over 99 percent since 1988.
Rachel Schneerson (1932 – Present)
In 1989, Dr. Schneerson and her colleagues developed the first vaccine against Haemophilus influenza b (Hib), a bacteria that causes severe infection or meningitis, mostly occurring in babies and young children. With the vaccine available, rates of Hib infection dropped almost 91 percent by 1991. These rates continued to decrease once the vaccine became available for infants.
Anne Szarewski (1959 – 2014)
In the 1990s, Dr. Szarewski and her team improved the testing methods for cervical screening samples and linked human papillomavirus (HPV) to cervical cancer. This breakthrough led to the development of the HPV vaccine, which helps prevent HPV and cervical cancer. Dr. Szarewski also wrote several books and papers, educating the public on reproductive health matters.
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