Great Women of Medicine

A role model, or someone to look up to, positively contributes towards our self-improvement. A role model influences our actions and motivates us to uncover our truest potentials and push us towards overcoming our weaknesses. Their achievements, advice or history can challenge us and help to keep us on track with our own goals and ambitions.

If you seek a role model, look for individuals that make their best effort towards healthy life choices, respect for others even in challenging situations, have a curiosity and have positively impacted their communities. In this article, a few of the many great women of medicine will be highlighted for their contributions towards our present society. In the process, I hope they will help to inspire more women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) as we celebrate women’s month this March!

Florence Nightingale

Italian-born British nurse is the founder of trained nursing as a profession. As a volunteer nurse, she was put in charge of nursing the military in Turkey during the Crimean War. Her first concern was sanitation: patients’ quarters were infested with rats and fleas, and the water allowance was one pint per head per day for all purposes. She used her own finances to purchase supplies. She also spent many hours in the wards; her night rounds giving personal care to the wounded established her image as the “Lady with the Lamp.” Her efforts to improve soldiers’ welfare led to the Army Medical School and a Sanitary Department in India. She started the first scientifically based nursing school, was instrumental in setting up training for midwives and nurses in workhouse infirmaries, and helped reform workhouses. She was the first woman awarded the Order of Merit (1907).

Clara Barton

One of the most honored women in American history who was intensely devoted to helping others and forged a bold path to help those in need. Barton was residing in Washington when the American Civil War began in 1861. During that time, she bravely provided nursing care and supplies to soldiers which defined her life and earned her the nickname, Angel of the Battlefield. With permission of President Lincoln, she opened the Office of Missing Soldiers to help reconnect more than 20,000 soldiers with their families.

During a trip to Switzerland in 1869, Barton learned about the humanitarian effort called the Red Cross which provided neutral aid to those injured in combat. She volunteered during the Franco-Prussian War then brought the movement to America and founded the American Red Cross on May 21, 1881. By 1882, it was ratified by the Geneva Convention and today, the Barton’s legacy lives on.

Elizabeth Blackwell

The first woman in the United States to graduate from medical school (1849) and the first woman doctor of medicine in modern times.

Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to graduate from medical school in the United States (1849) and the first woman to have her name on the British medical register (1859). She opened the Woman’s Medical College in New York (1868). She was appointed professor of gynecology at the London School of Medicine for Women (1875).

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson

The first female to qualify as a doctor in England. Anderson opened a school of medicine for women which paved the way for women’s medical education in Britain. She was given a good education and decided to become a doctor after meeting Dr Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor to graduate in the United States.

Anderson failed to get into any medical school and enrolled as a nursing student at the Middlesex Hospital. She attended classes with male colleagues, but was barred after complaints. She took the Society of Apothecaries examination and qualified in 1865. The society subsequently changed its rules in order to ban women entrants.

In 1866 she was appointed as a medical attendant at the St Mary’s Dispensary, London. Determined to become qualified as a doctor, she taught herself French and got a medical degree in Paris, but was still refused entry into the British Medical Register. She married James Anderson in 1871 (they had three children). In 1872 she set up the New Hospital for Women at the St Mary’s Dispensary, later the London School of Medicine for Women, where she appointed Dr Elizabeth Blackwell as Professor of Gynaecology.

Partly as a result of her open campaigning, an act was passed in 1876 permitting women to enter the medical profession. Anderson was appointed Dean at the London School of Medicine for Women in 1883, and oversaw its expansion. She retired in 1902 to Aldeburgh, Suffolk, where she became the first female mayor in England in 1908. She died in December 1917 and in 1918 the London School of Medicine for Women was renamed the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital (now part of the University of London).

Marie Curie

The first person ever to receive two Nobel Prizes: the first in 1903 in physics, shared with Pierre Curie (her husband) and Henri Becquerel for the discovery of the phenomenon of radioactivity, and the second in 1911 in chemistry for the discovery of the radioactive elements polonium and radium.

In 1898, after laboriously isolating various substances by successive chemical reactions and crystallizations of the products, which they then tested for their ability to ionize air, the Curies announced the discovery of polonium, and then of radium salts weighing about 0.1 gram that had been derived from tons of uranium ore. After Pierre’s death in 1906, when he was accidentally struck by a horse-drawn wagon, Marie achieved their objective of producing a pure specimen of radium.

Just before World War I radium institutes were established for her in France and in Poland to pursue the scientific and medical uses of radioactivity. During the war Curie organized a field system of portable X-ray machines to help in treating wounded French soldiers.

Honoria Acosta-Sison

Best known as the Philippines’ first woman to become a doctor. Sison earned a scholarship to study medicine in the United States in 1904 which the majority of her peers and relatives opposed. She graduated from Women’s Medical College, Pennsylvania (WMCP) in 1909 and become “the first woman of her nationality to become a physician”. Sison then returned to the Philippines to practice and teach by working as the first assistant in obstetrics at St. Paul’s Hospital, Manila.

Then in 1914, she became a faculty member at the University of the Philippines. By 1940, Sison became a professor of obstetrics and gynecology, and eventually became the head of the department of obstetrics. Sison was figurehead in the world of obstetrics, publishing over 100 papers on the subject. She also earned the Presidential Medal in 1955, a Gold Medal from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1959, Most Outstanding Woman Physician from the Philippine Women’s Medical Association in 1959. In 1978, the Philippines issued a commemorative stamp with her name and likeness.

Olivia Diaz Salamanca

Her full name is Olivia Simeona Demetria Salamanca y Diaz and is recognized as a pioneer of her profession. She was the second child of a well-to-do couple, Jose Salamanca, a colonel in the Philippine Revolutionary Forces, a pharmacist, and a signer of the Malolos Constitution, and Cresencia Diaz. Salamanca obtained her early education is a private school in Cebu where her father worked as a pharmacist. When the family returned to Cavite, Salamanca studied in the Colegio de la Sagrada Familia in Cavite City and later at the Cavite High School where she completed the first two years of the secondary course.

Salamanca took an examination for a scholarship to the United States in 1905, and she was one of the two women awarded a grant known as the pensionados, selected by the Philippine government under the Pensionado Act to study overseas in the United States.

Salamanca enrolled at a high school in St.Paul, Minnesota then finished the secondary course at the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia. Although her original plan was to take up teaching, she shifted to medicine and was admitted to the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia in 1906. During her second year in university, Salamanca won a prize in anatomy. Being brilliant she finished the medical course in four years, obtaining grades that were above 90 percent. Salamanca graduated in June 1910, only 20 years old, becoming the second female physician from the Philippines. While in the United States, she was the editor of The Filipino, a monthly publication created by Filipino student expatriates.

In 1910 she took and passed the civil service examination in the US. She also visited medical centers in New York and Washington D.C., Baltimore, New York City, Rhode Island, and Boston. On July 24, 1910, when Salamanca returned to the Philippines after a month of voyage. Upon her arrival, she was appointed secretary of the Anti-Tuberculosis Society. She was so engrossed with her work that she became neglectful of her own health and unfortunately became a victim of the white plague. Salamanca was sent to the Baguio Hospital to recuperate. She continued working in this hospital while undergoing treatment.

Since her condition did not improve, Salamanca was sent to Hong Kong for treatment by the Lopez family of Batangas, but no noticable changes in her health, so she returned to Philippines and on July 13, 1913, she died at the age of 24. As a tribute to this exemplary woman, a historical marker was installed by the Philippines Women’s Medical Association at the Plaza Olivia Salamanca. A street in San Roque, Cavite and a ward in the Mary Johnston Hospital in Tondo, Manila, have been named after her.

Fe Villanueva del Mundo

Born in Manila, del Mundo decided to pursue medicine after her older sister passed away due to appendicitis at age 11. She pursued medicine in 1926 at the University of the Philippines College of Medicine (UPM) in Manila, and graduated in 1933 as class valedictorian. While in medical school, her exposure to various health conditions afflicting children in the provinces, particularly in Marinduque, led her to choose pediatrics as her specialization.

After del Mundo graduated from UPM, President Manuel Quezon offered to pay for her further training, in a medical field of her choice, at any school in the United States. Del Mundo is said to have been Harvard Medical School’s first woman student, the first woman enrolled in pediatrics at the school, or its first Asian student. In 1939, Del Mundo returned to Harvard Medical School’s Children’s Hospital for a two-year research fellowship. She also enrolled at the Boston University School of Medicine, earning a Master’s degree in bacteriology in 1940.

In 1941, Del Mundo returned to the Philippines shortly before the Japanese invasion of the country. She joined the International Red Cross and volunteered to care for child-internees then detained at the University of Santo Tomas internment camp for foreign nationals. She set up a makeshift hospice within the internment camp, and her activities led her to be known as “The Angel of Santo Tomas”

In 1957, del Mundo founded the first pediatric hospital in the Philippines and is known for shaping the modern child healthcare system in the Philippines. Her pioneering work in pediatrics in the Philippines while in active medical practice spanned eight decades. She gained international recognition, including the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service in 1977. In 1980, she was conferred the rank and title of National Scientist of the Philippines, and in 2010, she was conferred the Order of Lakandula. She was the first female president of the Philippine Pediatric Society and the first woman to be named National Scientist of the Philippines in 1980. She was also the founder and the first president of the Philippine Pediatric Society, the first Asian to be elected president of the Philippine Medical Association in its 65-years existence, and the first Asian to be voted president of the Medical Woman’s International Association.


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