Need for diversity: 11 medical pioneers you should know about

From Cori’s cycle to APGAR score, today's medical professionals can look back and thank pioneering women who advanced our understanding of medicine and science, as well as women who revolutionized how medicine is practiced today.

a female scientist working at a research laboratory
Many women have contributed significantly to advancements made in modern medicine.

Because medicine and biosciences are fields that address the needs of all people, it's important to have diversity among practitioners and researchers. Diverse perspectives in medicine allow the field to expand and address the complex needs of all patients.

Throughout the history of medicine, pioneers have expanded the field despite resistance from the establishment of the time. Often, these people went on to make great contributions to science and medicine. In addition, their work helped pave the way for others to pursue medicine, thus increasing diversity and efficacy within the field.

Today, women make up more than half of all medical students, and women are better represented in science than ever before. Today's medical professionals can look back and thank pioneering women who advanced our understanding of medicine and science, as well as women who revolutionized how medicine is practiced today. Please enjoy this look back at 10 women who were medical pioneers, courtesy of studypages, and Sign up for our free newsletter if you'd like to learn more and keep up with the latest medical advancements.

a female doctor talking with a participant in a clinical trial
In the future, women who are doctors, nurses, and technicians are sure to continue to make contributions like those of the 10 women discussed in this article.

Women Who Changed Medicine

Katalin Karikó PhD: Katalin Karikó PhD, is a biochemist and researcher who became the 13th female to win the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine after her discoveries made it possible for mRNA vaccines to be developed against COVID-19. She was awarded the prize in October 2023, alongside immunologist Drew Weissman. Before their discoveries, mRNA vaccines were thought to be impossible, but Katalin and Weissman discovered a way to modify mRNA and package it for effective delivery into the body. These findings facilitated the rapid development of the COVID-19 vaccine, which was administered over 13 billion times and saved millions of lives all over the world. Their discovery is also pushing innovation in the race for future vaccines, as mRNA vaccines are currently in development for various diseases, including HIV, influenza, malaria, and Zika virus. Katalin received her bachelor's from the University of Szeged in 1978 and obtained her PhD there in 1982. She described the mRNA vaccine technology as "just limitless" and hopes that the prize will promote inspiration, perseverance, and resilience in women, immigrants, and young people.

Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell: Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to earn a medical degree from an American medical college. She was first in her class at Geneva Medical College in New York, graduating in 1849. After conducting additional studies in England and France, she returned to New York City, where she, her sister Dr. Emily Blackwell, and Dr. Marie Zakrzewska opened the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, now known as New York-Presbyterian Lower Manhattan Hospital.

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler: Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first African-American woman to graduate from medical school. Dr. Crumpler started her career as a nurse before gaining entry to New England Female Medical College (NEFMC) in 1860. NEFMC was the only medical school dedicated to training women at the time and one of very few that admitted people of color. After earning her degree, Dr. Crumpler moved south and worked with the Virginia Freedmen's Bureau to treat previously enslaved people before returning to Boston in the late 1860s. In 1883, she published a medical text called A Book of Medical Discourses.

Dr. Virginia Apgar, MD: Virginia Apgar graduated from the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in 1933 and went on to specialize in anesthesiology. She later became the first director of the Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital's division of anesthesia. Dr. Apgar studied the impact of anesthesia, labor, and delivery on a newborn's health. After a student asked how to gauge newborn health, she developed a diagnostic checklist that later became known as the Apgar Score. The Apgar score is still used today to assess newborn health in the first hours after birth.

Dr. Antonia Novello: Antonia Novello was the first woman to become the Surgeon General and the first Hispanic Surgeon General of the United States. Dr. Novello grew up in Puerto Rico and became interested in factors affecting transplant allocation after seeing a relative die of kidney failure. She was instrumental in writing legislation that would guide organ transplant policy. She was appointed Surgeon General in 1990 and oversaw initiatives to increase awareness of AIDS and reduce the impact of cigarette advertising on children.

Gerty Theresa Cori, Ph.D.: Gerty Theresa Cori was born in Prague, where she studied medicine at the Medical School of the German University of Prague. She met her husband, Carl Cori, there, and the two emigrated to the US, where they worked as research partners. Together, they studied the body's use of food, publishing their findings as the Cori Cycle. Their work earned them a Nobel Prize, and Gerty Cori became the first American woman to win the award. While Carl Cori was offered a job as department chair, Gerty Cori was hired as a research assistant but went on to win the Nobel Prize. Only then was she made a professor.

Florence Wald: Florence Wald was a nurse who was eventually appointed the Dean of Yale's School of Nursing. Wald is considered the “mother” of the hospice care movement in the United States. She studied European hospice care in the 1960s and returned to the U.S. in 1971. She established the first hospice program in the country upon her return. She continued expanding hospice services and making them accessible to all until her death in 2008.

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker: Mary Walker earned her medical degree from Syracuse Medical College in 1855. After brief forays into private practice and academic work, she attempted to join the Union Army as a medical officer. She was denied a commission but worked as a volunteer, treating patients as a field surgeon near the front lines. In September 1863, Dr. Walker became the first female U.S. Army surgeon when she was commissioned as a "Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian)." In 1865, she became the first and only woman to ever receive the Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service.

Dr. Alice Hamilton: Alice Hamilton earned her medical degree from the University of Michigan in 1893. She moved to Chicago, where she worked in the Hull House and saw up close the health effects of unsafe industrial practices. After publishing extensively on the health concerns of tenements and industrial facilities, she was appointed to the Occupational Diseases Commission in Illinois the first oversight entity of its kind. She later joined the Department of Industrial Medicine at Harvard, becoming the first woman faculty member at the university. Much of her work contributed greatly to occupational medicine.

Dr. Sara Josephine Baker: S. Josephine Baker studied at the Woman's Medical College of the New York Infirmary, graduating in 1898. She worked in private practice in New York City, taking on extra work as a medical inspector for the city. This led to her interest in and work in public health. She was appointed assistant commissioner of health in 1907, where she was instrumental in identifying "Typhoid Mary." In 1908, she was named director of the Bureau of Child Hygiene, where she developed public health programs for midwife training, basic hygiene, and preventive care. By the time of her retirement in 1923, New York City boasted the lowest infant mortality rate of any major U.S. City.

Katalin Karikó, Ph.D.: Katalin Karikó was born in Hungary and earned a doctorate in biochemistry at the University of Szeged. She moved to the U.S. in 1985. She worked as a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, studying the uses of mRNA. She pioneered a method of modifying mRNA and developed a delivery technique to package the mRNA in lipid nanoparticles, allowing it to provoke an immune response to fight disease. This discovery was instrumental in the development of the COVID-19 vaccine in 2021.

In no small way, women have impacted the world of science and medicine and continue to do so today. This helps restate the need for continued diversity and inclusivity in medicine and research to help promote more innovation and advancements. At studypages, we remain committed to diversity, inclusivity and equity in research. Stay connected to the latest health and research news by Signing up for our Pulse free newsletter.