Women Pioneers in Medicine


Elizabeth Blackwell (1821 – 1910)

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The first woman in the United States to earn a medical degree, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell paved the path for innumerable women to follow. Dr. Blackwell faced years of discrimination before graduating first in her class from Geneva Medical College in New York in 1849.

After moving to New York City to pursue a career in medicine, she continued to face hardships when looking for work—but that didn’t stop her. In 1857, Dr. Blackwell opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children with a mission to provide positions for women physicians. A true pioneer for women in the medical field, Dr. Blackwell also opened a medical college for women in New York City, where countless women followed in her footsteps.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831 – 1895)

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first Black woman in the United States to earn a medical degree. Challenging the prejudice that stopped so many Black Americans from pursuing careers in medicine, Dr. Crumpler graduated from New England Female Medical College in 1864.

Dr. Crumpler’s focus was on helping others—whether it was medically or otherwise—and she was devoted to helping those suffering. Her strength, resilience, and bravery brought about a turning point in the history of women in healthcare.

Mary Edwards Walker (1832 – 1919)

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In all of American History, only one woman has received the Presidential Medal of Honor—and that woman was Dr. Mary Edwards Walker. Not only that, but Dr. Walker was also the first female U.S. Army surgeon. She was a women’s rights advocate, an abolitionist—and a true pioneer for women in healthcare.

Dr. Walker was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor by President Andrew Johnson for her noble work as surgeon during the Civil War. Often crossing battle lines to care for soldiers and civilians, nothing stopped Dr. Walker from providing medical attention to those in need. Dr. Walker’s dedication and compassion continue to be celebrated and her legacy honored today.

Susan La Flesche Picotte (1865 – 1915)

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The first Native American woman in the United States to earn a medical degree, Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte had an extraordinary career. She helped over 1,300 people by providing financial advice, resolving family disputes, and providing access to medical care any day at any time.

In 1913, Dr. Picotte opened a hospital in the reservation town of Walthill, Nebraska, providing better access to those in the area. Her legacy is still honored today, as the hospital is now a museum dedicated to her and her trailblazing work in healthcare history.

Gerty Cori (1896 – 1957)

Another Nobel Prize winner, Gerty Cori, earned the prestigious award for her work in medicine/physiology in 1947. Cori was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in this category. She worked with her husband, Carl Ferdinand Cori, with whom she shared an interest in preclinical science, to prove vital concepts in genetics. Their work led to the discovery that an enzyme deficiency could be responsible for metabolism disorders. They also carried out multiple studies on the action of hormones, focusing on the pituitary gland. Over her lifetime, Gerty won several other awards in recognition for her contributions to science and earned honorary Doctor of Science degrees from Boston University, Smith College, Yale, Columbia and Rochester between 1948 and 1955.

Dorothy Klenke Nash (1898 – 1976)

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Dorothy Klenke Nash, MD, was the first female neurosurgeon to practice in the United States in 1928 and remained the country's only female neurosurgeon until 1960. A graduate of the prestigious Bryn Mawr College in 1921, Dr. Nash received her medical degree from the Columbia College (NY) of Physicians and Surgeons and received training in both neurology and neurosurgery under the guidance of Byron Stookey at the Neurologic Institute of New York.

Mary Logan Reddick (1914 –1966)

Mary Logan Reddick

Dr. Mary Reddick was renowned for her contributions towards neuroembryology. Dr. Reddick focused her studies on nerve cell differentiation in chick embryos and techniques for transplanting tissues. In 1943 her Doctoral dissertation from Radcliffe College (Harvard University) focused on “The differentiation of embryonic chick medulla in chorioallantoic grafts,” studying the neurodevelopment of chick’s brain cells. She returned to Morehouse college where she taught, becoming the first woman to chair the biology department, and be promoted to full Professor, she remained here till 1951. Dr. Reddick was named the first African American woman to receive the Ford Foundation science fellowship in 1952 to enable her to study abroad. Dr. Reddick chose to study embryology at Cambridge University.

Gertrude Belle Elion (1918 –1999)

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American chemist Gertrude "Trudy" Belle Ellion shared a Nobel Prize with George H Hitchins and Sir James Black for innovative methods of rational drug design which focused on understanding the target of the drug rather than simply using trial and error. 

Coming from a scientific background, Elion was inspired to pursue medicine when her grandfather passed away from cancer when she was 15 and became dedicated to discovering a cure for the disease. Using the methods she had designed, Elion and her team developed a staggering 45 patents, including drugs to combat leukemia, herpes, AIDS and treatments to reduce the body's rejection of foreign tissue in kidney transplants between unrelated donors. 

Jane Cooke Wright (1919 – 2013)

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The first woman to be elected president of the New York Cancer Society, Dr. Jane Wright dedicated her career to researching cancer treatments. Highlighting her fruitful career, Dr. Wright was appointed to the President’s Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer, and Stroke, and worked as associate dean at New York Medical College.

During a time when Black American women physicians were few and far between, Dr. Wright was the highest-ranked Black American woman at a nationally recognized medical institution. Her research pioneered new cancer treatment techniques that have impacted treatments available today.

Rosalyn Yalow (1921 – 2011)

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American medical physicist Rosalyn Yalow received the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine in 1977 for the development of the radioimmunoassays (RIA) technique, which is used to measure peptide hormones in the blood. Yalow’s diagnostic technique was so precise that it was used to scan blood donations for infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis. This was fundamental in ensuring life-saving blood transfusions were safe and effective. Later, the method allowed scientists to prove that type-2 diabetes is caused by the body not being able to use insulin properly.

Marian Diamond (1926 – 2017)

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Considered one of the founders of modern neuroscience, Dr. Marian Diamond is best known for studying Albert Einstein’s brain. Her research provided important evidence that experience and enrichment make physical changes to the brain’s structure, and that by contrast, environments without those factors can have a negative impact on the ability to learn.

Isabelle Rapin (1927-2017)


Dr. Rapin was a life-long faculty member at Einstein and a founding member of both the Child Neurology Society and the International Child Neurology Association. Her many accomplishments in the scientific realm reflect her lifelong passion for science and her singular dedication to alleviating the suffering of patients and families often stigmatized by disorders of unknown provenance and unusual behaviors.

Patricia Goldman-Rakic (1937 – 2003)

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Neuroscientist Patricia Goldman-Rakic is recognized for her studies of the brain, particularly, the frontal lobes and how it relates to memory. She gained her bachelor’s degree in Neurology from Vassar in 1959, and then her doctorate from the University of California in Developmental Psychology in 1963. Her multidisciplinary research significantly contributed to the understanding of neurological diseases such as dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and her study of dopamine and its effects on the brain is essential to modern day understanding of conditions such as schizophrenia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Audrey S. Penn (1934 – Present) 


Dr. Audrey Shields Penn (born in 1934) is an American neurologist and emeritus professor. Her major area of research was in myasthenia gravis. Dr. Penn was elected President of the American Neurological Association in 1994. She was deputy director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), and is the first Black woman to serve as an (acting) director of an Institute of the National Institutes of Health.

In 1989, Dr. Penn was elected second vice president of the American Neurological Association, then first vice president in 1990, and became the first woman president of the ANA in 1994. In this role she served as an important role model for many women physician-scientists. Dr. Eva Feldman, another prominent ANA president said “In brief, she told me, in so many words, I had an opportunity to change the ANA and increase its “voice.” I know I speak for all women of the ANA to say Audrey was and is a role model, mentor and has always had an open “door” and good counsel.”

In 2021 the ANA established the Audrey S. Penn Lectureship Award which is provided to an ANA member who conducts outstanding research, program-building, or educational scholarship to promote health equity on health care disparities.

Antonia Novello (1944 – Present)

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Dr. Antonia Novello was the first woman and the first Hispanic to serve as surgeon general of the United States.

While her focus was pediatrics, her work touched every corner of healthcare and medicine. Dr. Novello served in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps for many years, working with the National Institute of Arthritis, Metabolism and Digestive Disorders. She later became deputy director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, focusing on pediatric AIDS.

Alongside countless campaigns, Dr. Novello’s most notable impact is her initiative to end tobacco advertisements targeting children. Her work in healthcare has greatly contributed to enhanced ethical practices and standards.

Candace Pert (1946 – 2003) 

Dr. Candace Pert (1946-2013) was an internationally recognized neuroscientist and pharmacologist who published over 250 research articles and was a significant contributor to the emergence of “mind-body” medicine as an area of legitimate scientific research in the 1980’s.

Her paper, ‘Neuropeptides and their receptors, a psychosomatic network’ (J Immunology, 1986.), and her work on the first HIV entry inhibitor ‘Peptide T’ (subject of the 2013 movie “The Dallas Buyers Club”) propelled her into mainstream fame, earning her the titles “The Mother of Psychoneuroimmunology” and “The Goddess of Neuroscience” by her many fans.

In addition to being a highly creative neuroscientist, Dr. Pert was also an activist. She lead the movement to advance the cultural and scientific context in which we understand, experience, and employ our imagination, beliefs, and expectations for the purpose of activating our highest realm of potentiality. The mechanism through which this was to be achieved was through our emotions and their stored memories in what she called the “bodymind”, intentionally written without a hyphen in order to emphasize unity of its component parts.

Alexa Irene Canady (1950 - Present)


Dr. Alexa Canady is recognized for her contributions towards neurosurgery and is known for being the first African American woman to become a neurosurgeon in 1981. In 1987 she was appointed the chief of neurosurgery at Michigan’s Children hospital until her retirement. She received the American Medical Women’s Association President’s Award in 1993 and was introduced into the Michigan Women’s Hall of fame in 1989 for her contributions to science.

Nancy W. Dickey (1950 – Present) 

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The first woman to be elected president of the American Medical Association (AMA), Dr. Nancy Dickey is an educator, leader, and a passionate caregiver. When she started her relationship with the organization as an elected member of the AMA Council on Medical Services, she was 26 years old--the youngest to have ever held that position.

Dr. Dickey is currently serving as president of the Texas A&M University System Health Science Center and vice chancellor for health affairs. She continues to bring light to women in healthcare as she serves on the Board of Trustees of the Foundation for the History of Women in Medicine.