From ancient physicians and wartime nurses to chemists and medical renegades, there isn’t a sliver of health sciences that hasn’t benefitted from the skills of women.

Metrodora: physician

Born sometime between 200 and 400 CE, Metrodora was a Greek physician, possibly of Egyptian descent. She was a surgeon, midwife, and gynaecologist and defied the thinking of the time that medicine was a gift of the gods and therefore off limits to women and slaves. “On the Diseases and Cures of Women”, written by Metrodora, is the oldest known medical text written by a woman. While she focuses on gynaecology, which was often the realm of midwives – the only medical profession in which women were allowed to work, Metrodora’s text covered all aspects of health related to women. Her interest in pathology and diagnosis led her to create therapies and perform surgeries. She was also one of the first physicians to suggest surgery for breast and uterine cancers.

Florence Nightingale: Nurse, statistician, social reformer

Otherwise known as the founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale is most famous for her work in the Crimean War. With more soldiers dying as a result of poor sanitary conditions and overcrowding, Nightingale’s policy of hand washing and hygiene has been attributed to dropping the death rate in the war hospital from 42 per cent to 2 per cent. Nightingale also founded the world’s first secular nursing school at St Thomas’ Hospital in London. Though she was not a fan of the women’s movement at the time, she has been credited to professionalising nursing, which helped boost employment opportunities for women.

Mary Seacole: Nurse and business woman

Mary Seacole was a contemporary of Florence Nightingale, working alongside her during the Crimean War. However the legacy of the Jamaican/Scottish nurse was largely forgotten. Seacole funded her own way to Crimea after being knocked back for sponsorship. Nightingale also turned down Seacole who on many occasions attempted to gain a place among her nurses on the battlefield. In response she opened the British Hotel, where she cared for sick and injured soldiers who were so indebted to the kind nurse that the raised money for her when she was destitute following the war. Seacole also supplied hot tea and comfort to the hundreds of soldiers waiting to be lifted from battlefields to be taken to larger hospitals for treatment.

Lowitja O’Donoghue: Nurse, administrator and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander activist

Lowitja O'Donoghue is a Yunkunytjatjara woman and the first Aboriginal woman to receive a nursing qualification in South Australia. She applied to undertake nursing training at the Royal Adelaide Hospital but was refused entry; however she successfully fought to have the decision overturned. During this time she joined the Aboriginal Advancement League to advocate for wider employment opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women. In the 1960s she travelled to India to nurse. The trip was a game changer for Lowitja, saying it broadened her understanding on the dispossession of Indigenous people worldwide. This spurred her to join the public service to better agitate for change for Indigenous Australians. During the next three decades she held senior positions in a number of organisations focused on health and social justice. In 2010, Australia's National Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Research was named the Lowitja Institute in her honour.

Emma Constance Stone and Grace Clara Stone: physicians

Constance Stone was the first woman to practice medicine in Australia. She was forced to relocate to America in 1889 to study medicine at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania since the University of Melbourne would not allow women into its medical course. Constance’s sister, Clara, followed her footsteps into medicine and was one of the first two women to graduate from the University of Melbourne. The sisters then went into private practice together. In 1895 Constance and Clara held the first meeting of the Victorian Medical Women’s Society. In September 1986 eleven female doctors, including the Stone sisters, decided to found the Queen Victoria Hospital, which was officially opened in 1899.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler: physician

Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first woman of colour to earn a medical degree in the United States. After graduating from the New England Medical School, she moved to Virginia to help freed slaves who did not have access to healthcare at the time. She was also the first person of colour to write a medical text, when she authored the Book of Medical Discourse in 1883.

Marie Curie: chemist, physicist

Marie Curie’s discovery of the chemical elements polonium and radium are the foundation of the x-ray technology that we still use today. The Polish mathematician and chemist was responsible for huge advancements in medical technology. During the war she saw a need for better technology on the battlefield in order to save the lives of injured soldiers. After a quick study of radiology, anatomy, and automotive mechanics, she developed mobile radiography units, which came to be popularly known as petites Curies ("Little Curies"). She was awarded a Nobel Prize in physics and another in chemistry, being the only woman to have ever been awarded twice. Unfortunately it was her passion that led to her death. She died of aplastic anaemia caused by her continued exposure to radiation. Her original papers are still stored in metal casings and are deemed too dangerous to handle because of their high levels of radiation.

Margaret Sanger: Nurse, educator, activist and writer

The term ‘birth control’ was first coined by Margaret Sanger when she illegally opened the first birth control clinic in the United States. In 1914, she wrote The Woman Rebel, a newsletter that promoted contraception, and Family Limitation, which challenged anti-birth control laws. She founded the American Birth Control League, which became Planned Parenthood Federation of America. In 1929, she created the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control, which helped further her efforts to legalise safe contraception methods for women.


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