Do you ever feel like you’re fighting a losing battle in the pursuit of your dreams? If you are feeling this way today, you’ve in great company! Many of the most celebrated women today achieved their dreams after significant sacrifices and hurdles. We’re going to talk about four women in medicine who faced rejection time and time again because of their gender, but prevailed and fought tirelessly for their dreams.
1. Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell
Elizabeth Blackwell was the very first woman in the United States to be granted an MD degree in 1849 after being rejected from over 10 medical schools simply because she was a woman. She decided to pursue a career in medicine after a friend who was deathly ill said she believed she would have received better care from a female doctor.
At one point, one of her professors suggested that she pretend to be a man in order to gain acceptance into medical school, but Blackwell refused, saying, “It was to my mind a moral crusade on which I had entered, a course of justice and common sense, and must be pursued in the light of day, and with public sanction, in order to accomplish its end.”
She was accepted into Geneva Medical College in Western New York, after the male students were asked if they would agree to a female student being accepted. Many of them agreed simply because they thought the whole thing was a joke.
“It is not easy to be a pioneer but oh, it is fascinating! I would not trade one moment, even the worst moment, for all the riches in the world.”
– Elizabeth Blackwell
2. Mary Putnam Jacobi
Mary Putnam Jacobi took a particular interest in biology at a tender age. Initially, her father was reluctant to support her dream of becoming a doctor, but eventually supported her. She received her MD degree from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1864 and went on to become the first woman to study at the prestigous l’École de Médecine in Paris.
She advocated for co-education for medical students, arguing that the medical schools for women were not equipped to provide the same quality of clinical experiences as major hospitals. In 1872, she formed the Association for the Advancement of the Medical Education of Women to address the disparities in education for women.
One of her most notable contributions was addressing myths surrounding menstruation. When a Harvard professor wrote that women should not exert any physical effort during their period, including studying, Jacobi responded to that argument in our well written paper clearly stating that women are more than capable of functioning during our periods.
“It is one thing to say, ‘Some men shall rule,’ quite another to declare, ‘All men shall rule,’ and that in virtue of the most primitive, the most rudimentary attribute they possess, that namely of sex.”
– Mary Putnam Jacobi
3. Ann Preston
Ann Preston became the first woman to be dean of a medical school in America. Her interest in medicine peaked when she worked as a temperance activist in Pennsylvania. In 1847, after completing an apprenticeship with a local doctor, she applied to four different medical schools in Philadelphia but was turned down by each one of them. Some years later, in 1850, Preston became a student at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and eventually became a professor there.
When the Philadelphia Medical Society banned female doctors from training in their clinics, Preston formed a board of all women to create an opportunity where women would be accepted to train. After much effort, Preston was able to convince Pennsylvania Hospital to allow female students to train there. She remained committed to her conviction even when male students hissed and spat on a group of women as they entered the surgical theatre. When a campaign to prevent women from studying with men gained traction in 1869, Preston wrote a response and stated:
“Wherever it is proper to introduce women as patients, there also it is in accordance with the instinct of truest womanhood for women to appear as physicians and students.”
– Ann Preston
Ann Preston facts:
- She was the only daughter or the three born to her parents that survived to adulthood.
- In 1849, she published a book of children’s rhymes called Cousin Ann’s Stories.
- The Women’s Hospital of Philadelphia Preston founded in 1861 is now used as housing for elderly and homeless women
4. Susan La Flesche Picotte, MD
After seeing a Native American woman had died after a white doctor refused to provide care, Picotte was determined to make a difference and later became the first Native American woman in the US to earn a medical degree. She was the daughter of an Omaha chief and worked hard to partner with white reform groups to ensure that Native Americans received proper medical care.
After studying in New Jersey, Picotte taught at a Quaker school on the Omaha Reservation. She pursued medicine and, in 1889, graduated from the Women’s College of Pennsylvania, scoring the highest in her class.
She returned home and served a population that exceeded 1,300 across 400+ miles; often having to walk miles to attend to patients. She also worked long nights. In addition to her medical degree, Picotte also entered into the political arena to fight for political reforms. In 1906, she led a delegation to Washington to lobby for alcohol to be banned from the reservation. In 1913, she opened a hospital in a remote reservation town of Walthill, Nebraska.
“My office hours are any and all hours of the day and night.”
– Susan La Flesche Picotte, MD
Becoming doctors was a feat for these women, but they remained undeterred and our world is a better place today because of their sacrifice. So don’t give up in the pursuit of your dreams. You’re making a difference for generations of women who are to come.
Vimbai E. is a writer, journalist, ghostwriter and the founder of The Weight She Carries. With hundreds of articles publishing online, in print and for broadcast, her love of language and storytelling shines through every piece of writing that bears her name.