Women in Healthcare Professions

The field of healthcare, by nature, is a nurturing, healing profession. It is the nurturing, intuitive qualities that women bring to their roles in healthcare that make them exceptional at what they do. It is known that women played important roles in healthcare going back to ancient Greece and Roman times. However, history shows that in the 14th century, changes in ideas about the societal role of women began to take root and undermine their role in medicine. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the tides began to change, along with the general womens rights movement. Pioneers such as Elizabeth Blackwell and Mary Stuart Fisher began paving the way for new ideas about women’s roles in the medical profession. Their contributions to the women’s rights movement have served as an inspiration for countless others to follow their passion in medicine and the healing sciences.

Historical Figures & Statistics

We can hardly imaging a world where women are not an integral part of our healthcare system. As of 2006, of all physicians in the United States, only 27% were women. There is clearly still much work to be done in order to provide access and opportunity for women in healthcare. The team at strives to offer access to resources, opportunities, and support for women seeking access to quality education in healthcare.

Notable Women in Healthcare History

Mary Stuart Fisher – The “Mother of Radiology”

Mary Stuart Fisher was first in her class at Columbia University and the first woman to be named president of the Philadelphia Roentgen Ray Society. She spent more than 50 years as a radiology instructor, consultant, publisher, and physician. She was described by her students and colleagues as exceedingly sharp and highly intuitive and had the ability to see things within the images that others could not. According to, she was offered chairmanship at virtually all the hospitals in Philadelphia but declined them, stating that she “didn’t want to be the chairman of anything.”

She first taught radiology at the Philadelphia Veteran’s Administration Hospital, then went on to spend 15 years at Philadelphia General Hospital and worked periodically with almost all the schools in Philadelphia. She was an inspiration to many women who went on the become Radiologists and leaders in the healthcare and medical imaging industry. Later, she worked at Temple University Medical school until she retired at the age of 80 in 2003. In addition to being president of the Roentgen Ray Society, she served on the American Board of Radiology, the American Medical Association, the Philadelphia Medical Society, the Radiological Society of North America, the Association of University Radiologists, the Pennsylvania Radiology Society, the Association of Women in Radiology, the Society of Thoracic Radiologists, the American College of Radiology, and the National Board of Medical Examiners. One cannot overstate her involvement in the Radiology Community and the stunning example she set for women in radiology. (Source:

Elizabeth Blackwell – The First Woman Doctor

Elizabeth Blackwell, born in 1821, grew up watching several of her brothers and sisters die before her eyes, which became the driving force behind her passion to become a doctor. Female doctors were a rare feat for women at that time. She drew courage and inspiration from her parents, who believed that both their male and female children should strive to learn as much as possible, regardless of their gender and the societal pressures to take on particular roles.

Elizabeth overcame 16 rejections from a variety of medical schools with the exception of one – Geneva Medical College in New York. Her determination allowed her to persevere through the perils of sometimes insensitive remarks and attitudes toward her career aspirations from other male students who didn’t feel that medicine was a female role. She graduated in 1849, and shortly thereafter got an eye infection that left her without sight in one eye, but this didn’t stop her from continuing her studies in medicine. After spending some time abroad, she came back to the United States and opened a school to assist other women in their pursuit to become physicians along with a store where medicine was sold. Elizabeth and her sister Emily went on the raise money to open The New York Infirmary for Women and Children in 1857, which employed several women doctors. In 1868, she and notable nurse, Florence Nightingale, created the first medical school specifically for women. The Blackwell Medal, established in 1949 in her honor, is awarded to women each year for excellence in healthcare. (Source

Marie Curie – Pioneered Nuclear Technology in Healthcare

The discover of radioactivity by Henri Becquerel in 1896, inspired her and her husband to continue that research, which lead to the isolation of polonium and radium. Curie learned how to separate radium from radioactive residues, which lead to a breakthrough in the understanding of it’s potential for therapeutic purposes.

Curie was described as a highly dignified individual, who was regarded highly by scientists around the world. She helped establish a radioactivity laboratory with a gift of $50,000 presented by President Hoover in 1929 to purchase radium. She was a member of the Conseil du Physique Solvay as well as the Committee of Intellectual Co-operation of the League of Nations. She was awarded half of the nobel prize for physics, together with her husband, in 1903. Later, in 1911, she was awarded another Nobel Prize in chemistry for her work in radioactivity. Many women of high esteem in healthcare and science cite the Biography of Marie Curie as a “must read” for any female seeking inspiration. (source

Contemporary Women Leaders in Healthcare

Mary Kay Henry

Named among the nations top 25 Women in Healthcare by Modern Healthcare, Mary Kay Henry has been a voice for healthcare workers at the Service Employees International Union for 30 years. She has been instrumental in expanding healthcare coverage to millions of children and improve the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SHIP). She has spent most of her life helping healthcare workers form unions, improve their work environments, quality of care, and ethical matters in healthcare. SEIU is an advocate for over a million healthcare workers including technicians, nurses, doctors, and hospital employees. She began working with SEIU in 1979, and through her passion and leadership, became known as a key healthcare strategist. Mary Kay envisions a U.S. healthcare system that provides universal coverage and gives front-line caregivers a real voice in patient care. She is a member of the executive board of Families USA, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to the achievement of high-quality, affordable healthcare for all Americans. She was formerly a labor adviser to and member of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops’ Subcommittee on Catholic Health Care. (source: / July 2010)

Janet Corrigan

Janet Corrigan is at the forefront of efforts to improve the quality of healthcare in the Unites States today. She was recently named among the top 25 women in healthcare by Modernhealthcare Magazine. She is president of the non-profit National Quality Forum and is instrumental in setting national goals and priorities in healthcare quality. Prior to NQF, she was on the board of directors of the Institute of Medicine and acted in a leadership capacity in the development of the series on healthcare quality, “To Err is Human and Crossing the Quality Chasm.” (source

Women in Healthcare Statistics

While great progress has been made in women gaining access to healthcare professions, a glimpse of the disproportionate percentage of male physicians can still be seen by viewing the hard statistics gathered from the Physician Healthcare Characteristics study on behalf of the American Medical Association.


*data from American Medical Association & Physician Characteristics and Distribution in the U.S., 2008 Edition and prior editions

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