History’s healthcare heroines

History's healthcare heroines

Most people are familiar with Florence Nightingale, often referred to as the founder of modern nursing and famed for highlighting the vital role of nurses following her efforts treating wounded soldiers in the Crimean War in the 1850s – and Marie Curie, the Polish-born physicist and chemist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1903 for her contributions to science, including crucial strides in the development of X-rays.

But other than the famous radiologist and the revered ‘Lady with the Lamp’, how many other female healthcare pioneers do you know about?History's healthcare heroines

Many of the greatest breakthroughs in modern medicine and healthcare can be traced to the work of outstanding women, in fact, and recently, Your World Healthcare, the UK’s leading specialist healthcare recruitment agency, compiled a list of some of the most notable medical ‘wonder women’.

Here’s who made it onto their list.

Mary Seacole

Born in Jamaica in 1805, nurse Mary Seacole – like Nightingale – cared for soldiers during the Crimean War. The infirm soldiers affectionately named her ‘Mother Seacole’ due to the kind way she ensured they had food, blankets and clean clothes as the war raged on.

Elizabeth Blackwell

British-born Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to receive a medical degree in the USA, on January 23, 1849, and was also the first woman named on the UK Medical Register. A shining light in the movement for women physicians, she teamed up with Nightingale in the 1860s to open the Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary.

Clara Barton

Clara Barton, born in 1821, dedicated her life to nursing soldiers wounded in the American Civil War, and founded the American Red Cross, the humanitarian emergency-assistance organisation, in 1881. She’s also recognised for being awarded the Iron Cross, which was usually reserved for military men, and once said: “I may be compelled to face danger, but never fear it.”

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson

Born in London in 1836, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was the first English woman to qualify as a physician and surgeon in Britain and, along with some fellow female pioneers, helped found the London School of Medicine for Women in 1874. She was also an active member of the suffrage movement, and strongly believed that women were just as capable at being doctors as they were at nursing.

Aletta Jacobs

The first female to officially attend a Dutch University, and Holland’s first female physician, Aletta Jacobs, born in 1854, was also strongly associated with women’s suffrage. She is particularly well-known for her help to improve and perfect the diaphragm contraceptive.

Gertrude Belle Elion

Famous for her work to help develop drugs to treat leukaemia, malaria and AIDS, New York-born Gertrude Belle Elion, who died in 1999 aged 81, was the first woman to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. She also won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1988.

Patricia Bath

During her 73 years, Patricia Bath, who hails from New York, has broken a lot of ground for women and African Americans in the world of science. She became the first African-American ophthalmologist to head an academic department at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in 1983, and co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness in Washington in 1976.

Mary-Claire King

Most people are now familiar with the BRCA-1 ‘cancer gene’, which is strongly linked with breast cancer, but do you know how the gene was discovered? Well it involved a lot of unrelenting perseverance on behalf of American geneticist Mary-Claire King, born in Illinois in 1946. Her breakthroughs have helped revolutionise the study of numerous inherited diseases.

Alexa Canady

Michigan-born 65-year-old Alexa Canady is most famous for becoming the first African-American to become a neurosurgeon in the US. Her research has played an important role in the advancement of neurological science, and she was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 1989.

Who else would you add to the list?

Are there any other names you’d like to add to Your World Healthcare’s picks? Delve into healthcare history, and it seems countless women have played crucial roles, whether through scientific research, treatment advancements or simply with their dedication to caring. Here are three other names we think are worthy of a mention.

Betsi Cadwaladr

Often overshadowed by the fame of Florence Nightingale, North Wales’ Betsi Cadwaladr is a definite unsung heroine of healthcare. The Welshwoman worked 20-hour days to care for wounded soldiers on the Crimean front line, returning home towards the end of the war suffering with cholera and dysentery.

Patricia Goldman-Rakic

Recognised as the first scientist to fully chart the brain’s frontal lobe, and for her work relating to memory, American neuroscientist Pat Goldman-Rakic, born in 1937, contributed significantly to the study of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.


What better way to end than at the very beginning, eh? Metrodora, a Greek physician around 200-400 CE, is believed to have penned the world’s oldest medical book known to be written by a woman, called On The Diseases And Cures Of Women. Making considerable contributions to fields such as gynaecology, her work would live on to inspire medical writers in Ancient Greece and Rome.

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