Changing the Face of Medicine: Celebrating America's Women Physicians

Overview of Exhibition Themes

The exhibition begins by addressing the struggle women waged in America beginning in the mid 19th century to gain access to medical education after being shut out when medicine became established as a formal profession. Among the first generation to challenge assumptions about women's intellectual abilities and traditional responsibilities were Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to earn an M.D. degree in America, and Mary Putnam Jacobi, a medical scientist trained in Paris who was the first woman elected to the New York Academy of Medicine.

Women of color also faced financial hardship and racism when building their careers. Among women who went on to make remarkable contributions despite these obstacles is Matilda Evans, the first African American woman to be licensed as a physician in the state of South Carolina. In 1901, she established Columbia, South Carolina's first black hospital, and her survey of the health of black school children became the basis for a permanent medical examination program in South Carolina public schools.

By the early 20th century, women had made impressive inroads into the medical profession, but they were still discouraged from working in certain specialties and from pursuing scientific research. Women physicians created their own opportunities by founding new specialties and focusing on issues that in the past had received little attention. Alice Hamilton studied the effects of industrial metals and chemicals on the body and advocated for public health protection for workers. Virginia Apgar developed the first standardized way to evaluate a newborn's condition through ranking five vital signs, and Helen Taussig helped develop an operation to compensate for heart defects in newborns, paving the way for the development of adult open heart surgery.

Women physicians have made breakthrough discoveries that benefit everyone. They have brought new perspectives that are reshaping patient care, medical education, and public health policies. Barbara Barlow worked to make playgrounds in Harlem safe for children. Lori Arviso Alvord, the first Navajo woman to become a board certified surgeon, combines conventional Western medicine with traditional healing practices, and Katherine Flores works to increase the number of Latina women in the profession. Susan Briggs has devoted her career to medical emergencies in the U.S. and abroad, including the response to the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.

What about the physicians of the future? This exhibition offers role models such as Antonia Novello, the first woman and first Hispanic Surgeon General of the United States, Catherine DeAngelis, the first woman editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, and many more remarkable women physicians, whose lives and achievements may inspire people who view this exhibition to follow in their footsteps through a career in medicine, or to nurture their special talents and contribute to the world in other ways.