Women have always been essential to the history of health care and medicine. Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in the United States to earn a medical degree. Dr. Virginia Alexander brought awareness to the social and health inequalities that faced people of color in the 1930’s, and Henrietta Lacks’ “immortal” cells were part of nearly 75,000 studies and helped pave the way for the HPV vaccine, medications used to help patients with H.I.V. and AIDS and the development of Covid-19 vaccines.
Since 1995, presidents have issued a series of annual proclamations designating the month of March as “Women’s History Month”, commemorating and encouraging the study, observance and celebration of the vital role of women in American history and recognize the specific achievements women have made over the course of history in a variety of fields.
Women have always been essential to the history of health care and medicine. They have been doctors, nurses, midwives, activists, and public health experts, healing, studying, and improving access to health care.
To honor the service and impact of all women in health care we spotlight three women as representatives for all the amazing women who have shaped American health history.
Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell (1821 – 1910)
America’s first female doctor
Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in the United States to earn a medical degree. She became a lifelong advocate for female doctors. Dr. Blackwell had to fight for access to a complete education and to be seen as “a student simply,” not treated differently because of her gender.
She graduated in 1849 to great public approval. As further training was still not available in the United States, she studied for a few years in England and France.
“In the early 1850s, Dr. Blackwell returned to the United States. She and two other female doctors—Dr. Marie Zakrzewska and Blackwell’s younger sister Dr. Emily Blackwell—established the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children (now New York-Presbyterian Lower Manhattan Hospital). They treated poor patients and provided medical training for women.”
Dr. Virginia Alexander (1899 – 1949)
Making momentous strides in the health care system for black patients
Dr. Virginia Alexander brought awareness to the social and health inequalities that faced people of color in the 1930’s. Not only did Dr. Alexander treat patients, she worked for Howard University, worked towards the 1939 National Health Bill that would form a national health insurance system, and she went into service in the field of Public Health.
Dr. Alexander’s work and determination led to understanding of the health disparities of people of color and paved the road for significant change in health care, social, and economic issues.
Today we know that Social determinants of health (SDOH) have a major impact on people’s health, well-being, and quality of life, contributing to wide health disparities and inequities. Health organizations as well as education, transportation, and housing need to take action to improve the conditions in people’s environments to reach the full potential for health and well-being for all.
Henrietta Lacks (1920 -1951)
The immortal cells that continue to impact the world
In 1951, Henrietta Lacks who was dying of cervical cancer, went to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for treatment.
Without her knowledge or consent, doctors removed a sample of cells from her tumor. They gave the sample to a researcher at Johns Hopkins University who was trying to find cells that would survive indefinitely so researchers could experiment on them. Her cells thrived and multiplied in the laboratory, something no human cells had done before.
Today these incredible cells — called “HeLa” cells, from the first two letters of her first and last names — are used to study the effects of toxins, drugs, hormones and viruses on the growth of cancer cells without experimenting on humans. They were reproduced billions of times, were part of nearly 75,000 studies and helped pave the way for the HPV vaccine, medications used to help patients with H.I.V. and AIDS and, recently, the development of Covid-19 vaccines.
Her story also illustrates the racial inequities in the US health care system. Lacks was a Black woman and where her cells were collected was one of only a few that provided medical care to Black people.
Nobody asked Henrietta Lacks for consent to use her cells in research in 1951. None of the biotechnology or other companies that profited from her cells passed any money back to her family. The past cannot be undone, but we must acknowledge the wrongs of the past to make better choices in the present. The best way to recognize Henrietta Lack’s contribution would be to stop inequities in health care.
Whether in the past, or in present time, women are making history. As a woman-owned company, PCG is committed to continually supporting the role of women in health care and fighting against inequity.