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Women in Medicine: 6 Pioneering Activists

It was once a great struggle for a woman to even be considered for a medical education in the United States—or anywhere, for that matter. Only the strongest, most dedicated women managed to achieve a degree, and they deserve to be remembered for their efforts. These early pioneers in the medical field opened the doors for the many woman doctors who followed.

1. Ann Preston

Dr. Ann Preston (pictured above) was a teacher who worked to educate women about their own bodies. She always continued her own education, too, and worked as an apprentice to a doctor before applying to four different medical schools in Philadelphia, and was rejected—just like all the other female applicants. When the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania was founded in 1850, Preston enrolled in its first class. She graduated a year and a half later, then became a professor at the school. Meanwhile, she founded the Woman’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and changed the name of the school to the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. In 1866, she became Dean of the college, the first woman to hold the title. Preston then fought for the right of her students to attend clinics at various local hospitals just like male medical students. It was not an easy battle. In 1868, Preston’s students were allowed to observe a clinic at Blockley Hospital.

When the first women arrived, however, they were met by an angry demonstration. The male medical students shouted insults and threw paper, tinfoil and tobacco quids at the women. The female students remained composed and attended the clinic, but on their way out they were pelted with rocks.

It would not be the last time such behavior greeted the doctors-in-training. But Preston kept up her support of her medical students even as her own health failed. She died in 1872 and bequeathed her assets to the the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania to fund scholarships.

2. Mary Edwards Walker

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was the only woman in her medical school class in 1855. Her medical practice floundered because few people trusted a woman doctor. Walker volunteered her service to the Union Army, but was not allowed to enlist, so she served as a volunteer. She was not allowed to serve as a doctor, either, so she served as a nurse—at first. Walker ministered to the wounded at the First Battle of Bull Run and worked her way into the position of a field surgeon's assistant. She was awarded an army commission 1863, but was still technically designated as a civilian worker. Walker was taken by the Confederacy as a prisoner of war for several months in 1864 and was accused of being a spy. She continued to serve until the end of the war. In 1865 Walker became the only woman ever to receive the Medal of Honor, for her efforts at the First Battle of Bull Run. After the war, she campaigned for women's rights, temperance, and even ran for political office—before women even had the right to vote.

3. Rebecca Lee Crumpler

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first black woman to earn a medical degree in the U.S. She was born in Delaware in 1833 and grew up in Pennsylvania. As an adult, Lee worked as a nurse in Boston by on-the-job training, as there were no nursing schools at the time. Her supervisors were impressed with her work and suggested she try medical school. Despite the references, it took eight years for a college to admit her. In 1860, she entered the New England Female Medical College and graduated in 1864. She then married Arthur Crumpler. After the Civil War, Dr. Crumpler moved to Richmond, Virginia, where she could serve the medical needs of recently freed slaves. She later wrote that Richmond was

“…a proper field for real missionary work, and one that would present ample opportunities to become acquainted with the diseases of women and children. During my stay there nearly every hour was improved in that sphere of labor. The last quarter of the year 1866, I was enabled . . . to have access each day to a very large number of the indigent, and others of different classes, in a population of over 30,000 colored."

Crumpler returned to Massachusetts four years later and opened her own practice. She wrote Book of Medical Discourses, which includes her biography, but mostly focuses on how women can meet the medical needs of their families. It was published in 1883. In spite of her place in history, there are no existing photographs of Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler.

4. Mary Putnam Jacobi

In 1873, Harvard professor Edward Clarke published a book entitled Sex in Education; or, A Fair Chance For Girls. Despite a promising title, what he meant by “a fair chance” was to discourage higher education for women because,

"There have been instances, and I have seen such, of females... graduated from school or college excellent scholars, but with undeveloped ovaries. Later they married, and were sterile."

Clarke’s rationale was that a woman couldn’t menstruate and think at the same time, and trying to do so was dangerous. Therefore, keeping women out of colleges and universities was for their own good. Few took exception to Clarke’s opinions, but one who did was Mary Putnam Jacobi, a doctor, scientist, and extraordinary woman of her time. Jacobi earned a medical degree at Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1864 (where she received her M.D. at age 22), then went on to study at France’s famous École de Médecine, where she was the first woman ever admitted. Dr. Jacobi objected to Clarke’s views, but knew that her opinion wouldn’t matter a bit. Instead, she used research. Jacobi gathered empirical data on real women, and presented her findings without emotion or personal opinion.

“There is nothing in the nature of menstruation to imply the necessity, or even the desirability, of rest.”

Jacobi’s work won awards and helped to break down barriers in women’s education.

5. Georgia E.L. Patton

Dr. Georgia E.L. Patton was the first black woman to be licensed as a doctor in the state of Tennessee. She was born into slavery in 1864, and became the only member of her family to graduate from high school. Her brother and sisters worked to help her pay for college, then she continued to the Meharry Medical Department of Central Tennessee College, where she earned her medical degree in 1893. Patton left immediately for Liberia as a medical missionary, where she served for two years despite her church’s refusal to fund the trip. Patton contracted tuberculosis on what she thought would be a temporary trip back to the U.S., and never fully regained her health. Still, she set up a private practice in Memphis, where she was the only black female doctor. Patton practiced there for a few years, married, and had two children who died in infancy. Patton was only 36 years old when she died in 1900.

6. Sara Josephine Baker

Dr. Sara Josephine Baker got her M.D. from the Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary in 1898. Her private practice made so little money that she went to work for the City of New York as a medical inspector. Working with the poorest immigrants in the Hell’s Kitchen area, Baker became dedicated to preventative care. She knew that educating people on basic infant care, nutrition, and sanitation could save many lives and health care resources in the long run. Baker was appointed assistant commissioner of health for the city in 1907. She began programs that to provide New York residents with prenatal care, childcare classes, infant formula, baby clothes, vaccines, and milk. She took babies out of orphanages and put them into foster care, where they would receive individual attention, leading to a lower death rate. She was also instrumental in catching Mary Mallon, known a Typhoid Mary, twice. Dr. Baker became famous for getting results in public health, and in her later years was in demand to teach her methods in other states and in cities around the world.

This is the beginning of a series of posts on woman pioneers in medicine.

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History
84 Years Ago Today: Goodbye Prohibition!
A huge queue outside the Board of Health offices in Centre Street, New York, for licenses to sell alcohol shortly after the repeal of prohibition. The repeal of prohibition was a key policy of Franklin Roosevelt's government as it allowed the government an opportunity to raise tax revenues at a time of economic hardship.
A huge queue outside the Board of Health offices in Centre Street, New York, for licenses to sell alcohol shortly after the repeal of prohibition. The repeal of prohibition was a key policy of Franklin Roosevelt's government as it allowed the government an opportunity to raise tax revenues at a time of economic hardship.
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It was 84 years ago today that the Twenty-First Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, repealing the earlier Amendment that declared the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcohol illegal in the United States. Prohibition was over! Booze that had been illegal for 13 years was suddenly legal again, and our long national nightmare was finally over.


A giant barrel of beer, part of a demonstration against prohibition in America.
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Prohibition of alcohol was not a popular doctrine. It turned formerly law-abiding citizens into criminals. It overwhelmed police with enforcement duties and gave rise to organized crime. In cities like Milwaukee and St. Louis, the dismantling of breweries left thousands of people unemployed.


Photograph courtesy of the Boston Public Library

Homemade alcohol was often dangerous and some people died from drinking it. Some turned to Sterno or industrial alcohol, which was dangerous and sometimes poisoned by the government to discourage drinking. State and federal governments were spending a lot of money on enforcement, while missing out on taxes from alcohol.


New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach (right) watches agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid during the height of Prohibition.

The midterm elections of 1930 saw the majority in Congress switch from Republican to Democratic, signaling a shift in public opinion about Prohibition as well as concerns about the depressed economy. Franklin Roosevelt, who urged repeal, was elected president in 1932. The Twenty-first Amendment to the Constitution was proposed by Congress in February of 1933, the sole purpose of which was to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment establishing Prohibition.


American men guarding their private beer brewing hide-out, during Prohibition.
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With passage of the Constitutional Amendment to repeal Prohibition a foregone conclusion, a huge number of businessmen lined up at the Board of Health offices in New York in April of 1933 to apply for liquor licenses to be issued as soon as the repeal was ratified.

The Amendment was ratified by the states by the mechanism of special state ratifying conventions instead of state legislatures. Many states ratified the repeal as soon as conventions could be organized. The ratifications by the required two-thirds of the states was achieved on December 5, 1933, when conventions in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Utah agreed to repeal Prohibition through the Amendment.


Workmen unloading crates of beer stacked at a New York brewery shortly after the repeal of Prohibition.
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A brewery warehouse in New York stacked crates past the ceiling to satisfy a thirsty nation after the repeal of Prohibition.


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Liquor wouldn't officially be legal until December 15th, but Americans celebrated openly anyway, and in most places, law enforcement officials let them.

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Miss Cellania
10 Famous Birthdays in May
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Some of our favorite historical figures were born in May. We couldn't possibly name them all, so here are just a few of the notable people we'll be celebrating.

1. SIGMUND FREUD: MAY 6, 1856


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Sigmund Freud is known as the Father of Psychoanalysis. The Vienna psychiatrist developed a theory of the unconscious mind, where the id, ego, and superego struggle to balance each other out in the human psyche. Freud attributed his patients' neuroses to childhood trauma, often cloaked in a sexual conflict. His work was at first deemed perverted, but his ideas started to spread after a series of lectures in the U.S. in 1909. After Freud's death in 1939, Freudian theory was hailed as genius in mainstream culture. But beginning in the 1960s, Freud's theories started to fall out of favor in academia and are largely discredited today. However, his attempts to map the psyche gave us the language we still use to discuss personality and mental health.

2. FRED ASTAIRE: MAY 10, 1899


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Fred Astaire began dancing when he was just four years old. Soon he and his sister Adele were in a performing arts school and started dancing professionally. First came vaudeville, then Broadway, and when Adele married, Fred headed to Hollywood. Producers were at first reluctant to cast Astaire as a leading man because of his looks, but his dancing soon won them over. Astaire appeared in dozens of films between 1933 and 1981, 10 of them with with dance partner Ginger Rogers. Although his later films did not revolve around dance numbers, Astaire was seen dancing in an episode of Battlestar Galactica as late as 1979, when he was 80 years old.

3. MARTHA GRAHAM: MAY 11, 1894


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Martha Graham wanted to dance from an early age, but her parents disapproved, so she didn't study dance until college. Her wildly emotional dancing led her to performances in New York, and in 1926 she established the Martha Graham Dance Company. Through the company, Graham promoted modern dance as a spiritual and emotional outlet. Over time, she came to be seen as a genius of the genre. Graham danced until she was in her '70s, and continued to choreograph dances until her death at age 91.

4. KATHARINE HEPBURN: MAY 12, 1907


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Katharine Hepburn caught the acting bug in college and headed to the stages of New York upon graduation. She was spotted in a Broadway production and was offered the lead in RKO's 1932 film A Bill of Divorcement. That kicked off a movie career of more than 60 years, in which she was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won four. Hepburn was a certified box office draw, but off screen she refused to behave like a Hollywood star. She spoke her mind, wore pants, and even appeared in public without makeup occasionally. Hepburn was also known for her devotion to the love of her life, actor Spencer Tracy, who was separated from his wife but refused to divorce her. The last of nine films they made together was Guess Who's Coming to Dinner in 1967, just before Tracy died. Hepburn continued making movies through 1994, when she was 87 years old.

5. PIERRE CURIE: MAY 15, 1859


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French physicist Pierre Curie is often overlooked in favor of Marie Curie, his brilliant student and later wife. Together they discovered radium and polonium, and did extensive research into radioactivity. Pierre, Marie, and Henri Becquerel jointly won the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics for their research. Curie might have gone onto many further discoveries, but he was killed in 1906 when a horse-drawn cart ran over him in Paris. If he had lived longer, Curie might have also succumbed to illness caused by radiation, as did his wife, daughter, and son-in-law—all Nobel Prize winners.

6. MARY CASSATT: MAY 22, 1844


Mary Cassatt via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Renowned American painter Mary Cassatt wanted to become an artist, but her parents objected and her Philadelphia art school didn't take women students seriously. So she went to Paris and studied privately under teachers from Ecole des Beaux-Arts, as the school did not admit women. Gradually, Cassatt's works sold and her reputation grew. She drew the attention of Impressionist Edgar Degas, and worked with him for years. By 1886, she left the Impressionist movement behind, and afterward refused to be defined by any art genre. Cassatt's body of work often featured women and children in their everyday lives. Her most memorable painting, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, broke with tradition by portraying a child in a naturalistic, casual pose instead of a formal portrait.

7. SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE: MAY 22, 1859


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Arthur Conan Doyle is best remembered for his many short stories and novels featuring the detective Sherlock Holmes. But Conan Doyle worked full time as a medical doctor until an illness convinced him he had to choose between writing and medicine. Years later, Conan Doyle volunteered with the British army to fight in the Second Boer War, but because of his age (40), he was only allowed to serve as a medical doctor. Upon his return from South Africa, he entered politics in Scotland, but he lost his only race. In 1907, Conan Doyle became involved in a real criminal case in which he helped George Edalji, a solicitor of Indian heritage, beat an animal cruelty conviction by employing the observational technique that Sherlock Holmes used. The fallout from that case led to the establishment of the appeals system in Britain. Conan Doyle also wrote a science fiction novel The Lost World, published in 1912. It was so successful that he wrote four sequels.

8. MARGARET FULLER: MAY 23, 1810


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Born in Massachusetts in 1810, Margaret Fuller was a precocious child who learned several languages but was not welcome at college because of her sex. She became friends with both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who admired her philosophical thinking. Fuller became a literary critic for the New-York Tribune and a well-known intellectual.

In 1845, Fuller made history with Woman in the Nineteenth Century, often considered the first major feminist work published in the United States. This groundbreaking book began as an essay in Emerson's transcendentalist journal The Dial called "The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men. Woman versus Women," in which Fuller argued that men and women must see each other as equals before they can transcend to divine love. Fuller reasoned that ignoring our commonality was the base of much of America's sins, from the slaughter of Native Americans to the slavery of African Americans.

Fuller went on to become a foreign correspondent and the first American female war correspondent, covering the Italian revolution. She also fell in love with an Italian man and had a child with him. On their return trip to the U.S. in 1850 aboard a merchant ship, a hurricane struck the ship near Fire Island, killing all three. Only Fuller's 20-month-old son was found.

9. SALLY RIDE: MAY 26, 1951

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In 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman to travel into space, aboard the space shuttle Challenger. Ride was a nationally ranked tennis player when she was a teenager. Billie Jean King urged her to turn pro, but Ride went to Stanford University instead. She earned both a bachelor of arts in English and a bachelor of science in physics in 1973, and a PhD in physics in 1978. Ride then immediately applied for NASA's astronaut program. She flew two shuttle missions, in 1983 and '84, and was scheduled for a third, but that mission was canceled after the Challenger explosion in 1986. After leaving NASA in 1987, Ride devoted her life to encouraging students to study science—especially girls. She founded the organization Sally Ride Science for just that purpose, and wrote five children's books encouraging interest in science. Ride died of cancer at age 61 in 2012.

10. "WILD BILL" HICKOK: MAY 27, 1837


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James Butler Hickok was a farmer, soldier, stagecoach driver, spy, lawman, scout, sharpshooter, gambler, and Wild West showman. Many of those occupations came after "Wild Bill" Hickok gained publicity for killing three men in an 1861 shootout. The newspapers followed his exploits from that time on, often embellishing the details until Hickok was more of a legend than the adventurer he was. His various occupations took him to different parts of Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Wyoming, and South Dakota. Hickok was playing poker in Deadwood, South Dakota, when Jack McCall shot him in the back of the head and killed him in 1876. The hand Hickok was holding at the time—a pair of black aces and a pair of black eights—became known as the "dead man's hand."

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