Three Women Who Have Changed Medicine Forever

Three Women Who Have Changed Medicine Forever

Some of medical history’s most impressive feats would not exist without women.

Historically, men have been more likely to serve as physicians, while nurses are predominantly women. In spite of traditional gender roles and racial barriers, many women (think Marie Curie and Rebecca Lee Crumpler) pursued changing human history by pioneering research efforts and treatments. These three women persevered from the beginning of their medical careers to tackle growing medical problems in the field, in hopes of a healthier world.

Wafaa El-Sadr

Human immunodefiency virus and acquired immune deficiency syndrome, better known as HIV and AIDS, may be less of a conversation in the United States than other illnesses are, but it doesn’t take away from how real of a health concern it is for 1.2 million people in the nation. Researcher, doctor and professor Wafaa El-Sadr has developed studies on the prevalence of HIV and AIDS in the U.S., studying the disease since its 1980s outbreak.

Lauded as a “genius” researcher by some, El-Sadr has extended her work by providing treatments not only to patients in New York, but overseas. In both Harlem and sub-Saharan Africa, she sees patients for tuberculosis, in an environment where families could receive aid.

Mary-Claire King

The oldest mention of breast cancer dates back to ancient Egypt, but a female physician still alive and working in Mexico has made one of the most significant contributions to understanding the disease. In 1990, Mary-Claire King proved that she discovered that a single gene of the body’s 46 could carry the code for genetic breast cancer. A gene mutation in chromosome 17 could be responsible for anywhere from five to 10 percent of breast cancer cases in the world.

King’s discovery had a ripple effect; analyzing genetic sequences is now a common practice in understanding health issues such as hearing loss.


Virginia Apgar

No “women in medicine” list would be complete without a woman who contributed to changing pregnancy and childbirth, something that directly affects billions of women around the world. Not only did Virginia Apgar advocate for vaccination against rubella, a dangerous virus that could kill or severely affect fetuses (sound a little familiar?), but she also developed a test used to analyze how newborns were doing at birth.

The Apgar score came about in 1952 as a simple zero to 10 scale to determine how active and healthy a child is, looking at criteria such as complexion and respiratory efforts. The American Academy of Pediatrics noted that it was a “convenient shorthand” for determining how to treat a newborn at birth, although it should be expanded.

It’s hard to imagine a world where these three women’s efforts haven’t somehow affected the world, whether as a child measured with the Apgar score or using genetic knowledge to perform better-informed breast cancer screenings. Cheers to the women who continue to shape medical history, day by day.

Image courtesy of Getty Images.