The pioneering first women in medicine across different countries and cultures

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Today is International Women's Day. The campaign theme for International Women's Day 2024 is Inspire Inclusion.

"When we inspire others to understand and value women's inclusion, we forge a better world. And when women themselves are inspired to be included, there's a sense of belonging, relevance, and empowerment."

That's why today, we wanted to take a moment to tell the story of some of the pioneering first women in medicine across different countries and cultures.

The journey of women in medicine is a narrative of resilience, perseverance, and groundbreaking achievements. Despite facing societal barriers and institutional restrictions, women have been integral to the field of medicine for centuries. This article celebrates the pioneering first women in medicine across different countries and cultures, acknowledging their contributions and the paths they paved for future generations.

Elizabeth Blackwell, United States

In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States from Geneva Medical College. Despite encountering significant opposition, Blackwell opened doors for women in medicine, founding the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children and later, the Women's Medical College of the New York Infirmary.

Anandi Gopal Joshi, India

Dr Anandabai Gopal Joshee (31 March 1865 – 26 February 1887) was one of the first Indian female doctors of western medicine, and one of the first to graduate from an American University. As was common at that time, her mother married her, at the age of nine, to Gopalrao Joshee, he was a widower and twenty years her senior.

Gopalrao Joshee was progressive for his time and was very supportive of his wife's dream to study medicine. He even wrote a letter to Royal Wilder, a renowned American missionary, stating his wife's interest in studying medicine in the United States and inquiring about a suitable post in the US for himself.

In the 1800s, it was not the norm for husbands to focus on their wives' education, but Gopalrao defied this and was passionate about Anandibai's education.

At the age of 10, Anandibai lost her child due to the lack of medical care in India, and it was this that inspired her to pursue a career in medicine. Anandibai believed that one of the reasons so many women and children lost their lives during childbirth was because societal norms caused them to decline the care of male gynaecologists.

This devastating experience prompted Dr Anandibai's famous address to the community at Serampore College Hall. She urged that there was a need for female doctors in India, as female doctors could best serve other females, and she told them that she wanted to travel to America and get a medical degree. After her speech financial aid started coming in from all over India.

Anandibai wrote to the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia,‍ which was the second women's medical program in the world.

The dean of the college enrolled her and Anandibai began her medical training at age 19 in America, and she graduated with an MD in March 1886.

In late 1886, Anandibai returned to India, where she received a grand welcome. She was appointed as the physician-in-charge of the female ward of the local Albert Edward Hospital. She died of tuberculosis the next year on 26th February 1887, she was greatly mourned.

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Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, United Kingdom

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson shattered glass ceilings in Britain by becoming the first woman to qualify as a physician and surgeon in 1865. After being denied access to medical schools, she taught herself, passed the exams, and eventually co-founded the first hospital staffed by women, the New Hospital for Women, in London.

Trousseau and Marie Zakrzewska, France and Germany

In France, Madeleine Brès became the first woman to earn a medical degree in 1875, after initially being rejected from medical school. Around the same time, in Germany, Marie Zakrzewska, emigrated to the United States where she made significant contributions to women's healthcare and founded the New England Hospital for Women and Children.

Kei Okami, Japan

Dr Kei Okami (11 September 1859 – 2 September 1941) was a Japanese physician specialising in gynaecology and tuberculosis. Like Anandibai, she attended the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania in America.

After four years of study, she graduated in 1889, becoming one of the first Japanese woman to obtain a degree in western medicine from an American university.

After returning to Japan, Dr Kei Okami initially worked at the Jikei Hospital, but she resigned because the Emperor refused her care for the sole reason that she was female. After this, she opened her own clinic, operating out of her home in Akasaka Tameike, Minato. Making her not only one of the first Japanese women to become a doctor, but also one of the first to start her own practice.

Dr Tabat M Islambouly

Dr Tabat M Islambouly (AKA Sabat M. Islambouli, Sabat Islambooly, Tabat Istanbuli, Thabat Islambooly) (1867 – 1941) was one of the first Kurdish female physicians from Syria. She was born to a Kurdish-Jewish family.

Tabat studied at the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania in the United States of Amercia. She graduated with her medical degree in 1890. Of the pioneering female physicians Tabat's life is the most shrouded by mystery, she is believed to have gone back to Damascus after she graduated, and then to Cairo in 1919, according to the college's alumnae list.

After that, the college lost touch with her. Little is known of what happened to her once she left the United States, but it is noted that she died in 1941.

Merit-Ptah, Ancient Egypt

While modern records celebrate these pioneers, the history of women in medicine stretches back to ancient times. Merit-Ptah, who lived around 2700 BCE in Egypt, is often cited as the first known woman in medicine, serving as the chief physician of her time. However, new research has recently questioned whether Merit-Ptah ever existed or if she was instead a fictional invention of a Canadian feminist called Kate Campbell Hurd-Mead.

The pioneering first women in medicine across the globe faced immense challenges to practice their passion and serve their communities. Their courage, determination, and achievements not only transformed the field of medicine but also laid the groundwork for equality in education and the workplace. Today, as we continue to strive for gender parity in all sectors, the stories of these trailblazing women remind us of the power of resilience and the importance of continuing to fight for equal opportunities for all.

Medrecruit Editorial Team
08 March 2024Article by Medrecruit Editorial TeamMedrecruit Editor