It is important that the Academy recognizes the contributions of women to the nation’s history and the vital roles they have played in shaping many aspects of American life, especially in medicine (including the three physicians pictured here — Antonia Novello, M.D., M.P.H., Dr.P.H.; Audrey Manley, M.D., M.P.H.; and Joycelyn Elders, M.D. — who all served as U.S. surgeons general). As Women’s History Month is celebrated not just in the United States but in several other countries, it is also important to recognize the accomplishments of women from across the world.
The following timeline is a brief point of reference for those interested in learning more about how women have advanced the science and art of healing. Readers are also invited to view the Academy’s recent timelines in celebration of Black History Month, which recognize additional contributions women have made to the practice of healing and the specialty of family medicine.
1849: Two years after the all-male student body at Geneva Medical College in western New York unanimously votes to admit her “as a joke,” Elizabeth Blackwell, M.D., graduates at the top of her class and becomes the first woman to earn a medical degree from an American medical school. Eight years later, she and several colleagues found the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, a facility known today as New York University Downtown Hospital.
1855: Mary Edwards Walker, M.D., of Oswego, N.Y., graduates from Syracuse Medical College and opens a private practice with her husband, Albert Miller, M.D. Early in the Civil War she volunteers to join the Union effort, working first as a nurse in a temporary hospital in Washington, D.C., and later providing care for wounded soldiers in Virginia. In 1863, she receives an appointment as assistant surgeon in the Army of the Cumberland. During the following spring Walker is captured by the Confederate Army and held as a prisoner of war; she is later returned in a prisoner exchange and in September 1864 receives a contract as acting assistant surgeon with the Ohio 52nd Infantry, making her one of the country’s first known woman surgeons. For her work during the Civil War, she is given the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1865, the first woman to receive the award.
1866: Ann Preston, M.D., who graduated from the Female (later Woman’s) Medical College of Pennsylvania 15 years earlier, becomes the first woman dean of the college and, at the same time, the first woman dean of a U.S. medical school. Before becoming dean, in response to the Philadelphia Medical Society’s decision to bar female physicians from training clinics, in 1858 Preston organized an all-female board of managers to plan and operate a woman’s hospital, allowing female students to gain clinical experience.
1898: Marie Curie, Ph.D., a mathematician and scientist, discovers polonium and radium. Research conducted by Curie and her husband, Pierre, establishes the relationship between radioactivity and certain heavy elements, leading to medical advancements such as the development of the X-ray, which allows physicians to diagnose patients without performing open surgery, and radiation therapies for treating certain types of cancer. Curie’s groundbreaking research results in her earning a Nobel Prize in physics in 1903 (the same year she receives her doctorate from the Université de la Sorbonne) and a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1911 — the first and only woman to be honored twice. The Curie Institute, which she founded in Paris in 1920, is now one of the world’s leading cancer research centers.
1947: Gerty Theresa Cori, Ph.D., who graduated from the German University of Prague’s Medical School in 1920, becomes the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Cori shares the award with her husband, Carl, and Argentine physiologist Bernardo Houssay, for their discovery of the course of the catalytic conversion of glycogen — a process known as the Cori cycle, or lactic acid cycle, which plays a crucial role in metabolism.
1949: Jane Cooke Wright, M.D., begins working with her father, Louis Wright, M.D., in conducting trials of medications for leukemia and lymphatic cancers at the Harlem Hospital Cancer Research Foundation. Two years later, research authored by Wright establishes the efficacy of methotrexate, a folic acid antagonist, in treating breast cancer. Her pioneering work results in the development of several new techniques for administering cancer chemotherapy. Later, in 1964, she becomes a founding member — and the only woman in the founding group — of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, serving as the organization’s first secretary-treasurer.
1950: At the Veterans Administration Hospital in Bronx, N.Y., physicist Rosalyn Yalow, Ph.D., begins working with Solomon Berson, M.D., an internist with no research training, looking for new ways to use radioactive isotopes in medicine. Over the next several years they develop a technique that allows for the measurement of extremely small quantities of hormones and other biological substances found in the blood and other body fluids. They name the technique the radioimmunoassay, and despite its huge commercial potential, Yalow and Berson decide not to patent the technique, instead inviting scientists all over the world to visit them and learn about the process. In 1977, Yalow receives the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, and thanks Berson in her acceptance speech.
1953: Virginia Apgar, M.D., a graduate of the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University, introduces a test known as the Apgar score. Familiar to most people, the test that bears Apgar’s name was initially designed to assess a newborn’s health in five key areas: appearance, pulse, grimace, activity and respiration. The Apgar test was the first tool to scientifically assess a newborn infant’s health risks and need for potentially lifesaving care and observation, and is still used by health care professionals today.
1957: Mary Johnston, M.D., of Tazewell, Va., is elected the first woman on the AAFP (then American Academy of General Practice) Board of Directors, and serves on the board until 1960. In 1968 Johnston, along with Rufus Brittain, M.D., helps to found Tazewell Community Hospital; the facility officially opens in November 1973 and has operated continuously ever since.
1990: Antonia Novello, M.D., M.P.H., Dr.P.H., who overcame congenital megacolon as a child to earn her medical degree from the University of Puerto Rico, becomes the first woman and first Hispanic person to serve as surgeon general of the United States. As surgeon general, she focused on the health of young people, women and minorities. After serving as surgeon general, she was a special representative to the United Nations Children’s Fund, where she directed efforts to address the health and nutritional needs of women, children and adolescents.
1998: Family physician and AAFP member Nancy Dickey, M.D., a 1976 graduate of the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, is elected the first female president of the AMA. At the time, she was the youngest physician elected as AMA president in the 20th century.
2004: In October, Mary Frank, M.D., of Mill Valley, Calif., officially becomes the first female president of the AAFP. Under her leadership, the AAFP works with other medical associations to create a plan for health system reform, including access to health care, medical liability reform and management of health care costs.
2009: Family physician and AAFP member Regina Benjamin, M.D., is unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate as surgeon general.
2020: Ada Stewart, M.D., a practicing family physician with Cooperative Health in Columbia, S.C., is sworn in as the first Black woman president of the AAFP.