Women in STEM fields have had some pretty amazing achievements over the course of herstory including incredible female practitioners in medicine – women who dressed as men to become military doctors; ancient Italian experts on childbirth; and women who broke the mold when they were told that medicine is only for boys.
For Women’s History Month, InspiredByMyMom.com has chosen three women whose contributions may have been gravely overlooked. Let us celebrate these women in medicine and broadcast their achievements.
Mary Seacole was a pioneering nurse and heroine of the Crimean War, who as a woman of mixed race overcame a double prejudice.
Born Mary Jane Grant in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805 from a Scottish soldier father and a Jamaican mother, Mary learned her nursing skills from her mother who kept a boarding house for invalid soldiers.
Mary was an inveterate traveller, and before her marriage to Edwin Seacole from 1836 to 1844, she visited other parts of the Caribbean, including Cuba, Haiti and the Bahamas, as well as Central America and Britain. On these trips she complemented her knowledge of traditional medicine with European medical ideas.
In 1854, Mary Seacole travelled to England and approached the War Office asking to be sent as an army nurse to the Crimea where there were poor medical facilities for wounded soldiers. Although she was refused, she funded her own trip to the Crimea where she established the British Hotel near Balaclava to provide ‘a mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers’. She also visited the battlefield, sometimes under fire, to nurse the wounded, and became known as ‘Mother Seacole’.
After the war she returned to England destitute and in ill health. The press highlighted her plight and in July 1857 a benefit festival was organised to raise money for her, attracting thousands of people. In later life, she published a best-selling memoir ‘The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands’ and administered personally to the British Royal Family.
Although she died on 14 May 1881, in 2004 she was voted the greatest black British person in history.
Elizabeth Blackwell was a British-born physician who notably became the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States.
Born in 1821 in England Elizabeth Blackwell’s father moved the family to the United States in 1930 when Bristol became unstable and riots began to break out.
It is said that she turned to studying medicine after a close friend who was dying suggested she would have been spared her worst suffering if her physician had been a woman. She had no idea how to become a physician but, upon consultation, was told it was too expensive and not available to women. Attracted by the challenge, she convinced two physician friends to let her read medicine with them for a year. She applied to numerous medical schools and was finally accepted by Geneva Medical College in 1847 though not without its own controversy to allow a woman in.
When she graduated from the New York Medical College in 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman in America to earn the M.D. degree. She worked in clinics in London and Paris for two years where she contracted “purulent opthalmia” from a young patient and, when she lost sight in one eye, she returned to New York City in 1851. Giving up her dream of becoming a surgeon, she continued her practice as a physician.
New York did not offer many opportunities for a young, female physician so, with the help of friends, she opened her own dispensary in a single rented room, seeing patients three afternoons a week. Her sister, Dr. Emily Blackwell, joined her in 1856 and, together with Dr. Marie Zakrzewska, they opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children in 1857.
After establishing the infirmary, Elizabeth Blackwell went on a year-long lecture tour of Great Britain. While there, she became the first woman to have her name on the British medical register. Her lectures, and personal example inspired more women to take up medicine as a profession.
When the American Civil War broke out, the Blackwell sisters aided in nursing efforts however they did meet with some resistance on the part of the male-dominated United States Sanitary Commission. The New York Infirmary managed to work with Dorothea Dix to train nurses and helped to organize the Women’s Central Association of Relief.
A few years after the end of the war Elizabeth Blackwell carried out a plan that she’d developed in conjunction with Florence Nightingale while in England. With her sister she opened the Women’s Medical College at the infirmary. This college was to operate for thirty-one years but not under Elizabeth Blackwell’s direct guidance. She moved the next year to England. There, she helped to organize the National Health Society and she founded the London School of Medicine for Women.
As her health declined, Blackwell gave up the practice of medicine in the late 1870s, though she still campaigned for reform. On 31 May 1910, she died at her home in England after suffering a stroke that paralyzed half her body.
Yoshioka Yayoi was a Japanese physician, a women’s rights activist and opened the first medical school for women in Japan.
Yoshioka Yayoi was born Washiama Yayoi in Japan in 1871. At a very young age, she was helping her father care for other children in her village which created a sense of medical duty toward humanity early on in her life.
In 1889, her father sent her to medical school in Tokyo with her two older brothers. Though struggling against oppression and social injustice she still managed to become a doctor. She passed government exams and become a gynecologist in 1893.
With her husband, Yoshioka founded the Tokyo Women’s Medical in 1899, the first medical school for women in Japan, which was not recognized by the Japanese government until 1920.
In 1925, Yayoi founded the Juvenile Protection Women’s Association which operated a small protective association for girls and its Osaka branch established a counseling center for families with problem children. In 1930, with the help of Fusae Ichikawa they started the Women’s Suffrage League of Japan. By the end of the same year almost a thousand women had gone through Yoshioka’s medical school. She was very active in the women’s movement in Japan and advocated for sex education.
During World War II, Yoshioka was a leading figure in patriotic women’s associations and, throughout her life, she was involved in organizations promoting the education of women.
In 1953, she stopped teaching, after 50 years, to focus on her family. She died in 1959 of pneumonia at the age of eighty-eight but, before her death, she received a number of awards including the Order of the Precious Crown and the Order of the Sacred Treasure. A memorial museum dedicated to her exists in Kakegawa, Shizuoka, Japan.
You may be interested in reading other stories in this series.
March is Women’s History Month – Part 4 – Women in AVIATION
March is Women’s History Month – Part 3 – Women in WAR
March is Women’s History Month – Part 2 – Women in ART
March is Women’s History Month – Part 1 – Women in STEM