HEALERS, MIDWIVES, AND DOCTORS

Other Amazing Women of Medicine

AGNODICE

4TH CENTURY BCE Although there’s a chance that Agnodice’s legendary life is more faux than fact, her story is still inspirational. Back in ancient Athens, common occurrences like childbirth, as well as preventable and treatable illnesses, could end up being fatal—largely because women had been banned, on penalty of death, from practicing medicine, and many ill or pregnant women patients refused to see male doctors. According to legend, Agnodice hightailed it to Alexandria, where she studied all the medicine she could. She then returned to Athens disguised as a dude, intending to give women quality treatment that didn’t make them uncomfortable. The city’s doctors grew suspicious of how much their wives liked the new Mr. MD, and so they dragged Agnodice to court on charges of adultery and seduction. Unflappable Agnodice simply lifted her dress, flashing the courtroom her bits, and thereby (in the eyes of ancient Athens, anyway) proving her innocence. After which she was unstoppable, mostly because all the women in Athens threatened to leave if their favorite doctor was banned from treating them.

MARIA DALLE DONNE

1778–1842 Born to a poor peasant family of day laborers outside Bologna, Italy, Maria Dalle Donne and her supersmarts were recognized early on by a physician named Luigi Rodati (who may have been her uncle). Rodati brought her to the city center and had her educated in Latin, physics, philosophy, pathology, anatomy, obstetrics, and more; he then encouraged her to apply to the University of Bologna on a yearly scholarship. Having learned all the things, Maria graduated in 1799 with degrees in philosophy and medicine, making her the first female MD ever. Denied a teaching position for the usual reasons (oh, womanhood), she instead was given a laboratory and funding to continue her research—which was great while it lasted. Ever nimble, Maria then moved on to directing the university’s school for midwives (which she ran out of her own home), training countless midwives to abandon the era’s more barbaric practices in favor of safer, more hygienic care. In 1829, the science institute Accademia Benedettina awarded her the title of “academic,” which was both well deserved and a huge understatement, considering all that she’d done.

REBECCA LEE CRUMPLER

1831–1895 In the days when professional medical care for Black people in America was essentially nonexistent, Rebecca Lee Crumpler had to bust her butt to gain entry to the New England Female Medical College. She was accepted in 1860—following eight years of work as an untrained nurse—and her 1864 graduation made her the first Black woman in America to become a doctor of medicine. Rebecca went on to establish practices in Boston and Richmond, Virginia, intending to help freed slaves, poor women, and children of color. She persisted in caring for her patients despite intense racism (and sexism) from male colleagues, druggists, and the general public. At age fifty-two, Rebecca published A Book of Medical Discourses, the only nineteenth-century medical text written by a Black woman, filled with tips and tricks on the medical care of women.

OKAMI KEIKO

1859–1941 After graduating from the Yokohama Kyoritsu Girls’ School in 1878 and a brief stint teaching English, Okami Keiko and her art teacher husband headed to America. With financial assistance from the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Presbyterian Church (whose members called her studies abroad “akin to heroism”), Keiko was able to enroll at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, where in 1889 she became the first Japanese woman to earn a degree in medicine in the West (graduating alongside Susan La Flesche Picotte, the first Native American woman with a degree in medicine). Keiko actually knew our girl Anandi Joshi—they appear together in a really awesome graduation photo, along with a Kurdish Jewish woman who went on to practice medicine in Cairo. After returning to Japan, Keiko worked at Jikei Hospital; opened her own clinic, women’s hospital, and nursing school; and became vice principal of Shoei Girls’ School in Tokyo.

SARA JOSEPHINE BAKER

1873–1945 After her father and brother died of typhoid, Sarah Josephine “Jo” Baker sought an education from the Blackwell sisters’ medical college, where she earned her degree in 1898. She set up a medical practice in New York City, and became a medical inspector with the New York City Health Department. Because at the time everyone was super unhygienic—Jo noted that babies in America had a higher mortality rate than soldiers in World War I—she went door to door in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, teaching mothers how to care for their children in a clean way. To get babies off to the freshest start possible, she also developed a licensing system for local midwives (home births had a lower infection rate than hospital births, thanks to her!). She even caught the infamous disease-spreading Typhoid Mary—twice (probably because, like any good superhero, she wanted to avenge her father’s death from typhoid). Jo fought hard for suffrage, became a representative for the U.S. Health Committee to the League of Nations, and shared a home with the Australian writer Ida Alexa Ross Wylie (just gals bein’ pals!).

FE DEL MUNDO

1909–2011 Born in Manila, Fe del Mundo decided she wanted to become a doctor after watching four of her siblings die during childhood. She went on to do so well in medical school at the University of the Philippines that at the age of twenty-four, she was offered a full scholarship to any school in America by the Philippine president himself. She chose Harvard, where she ended up enrolled in its medical school completely by accident; it didn’t admit women, but officials were unaware of Fe’s lady status when they accepted her. Fortunately, she excelled at pediatrics, and because the Harvard department couldn’t give a good reason for her not to be admitted, she became the first woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School. In 1941, after a residency at the University of Chicago, a research fellowship back at Harvard Medical School, and a master’s degree in bacteriology from Boston University, Fe returned to her home country, where she spent the rest of her life helping poor, sick children as much as she could, even selling her home to fund a children’s medical center.

GURUBAI KARMARKAR

D. 1932 Another alumna of our beloved Woman’s College of Pennsylvania, Gurubai Karmarkar earned her diploma in 1892, six years after her countrywoman Anandi Joshi graduated. In 1893 Gurubai and her husband, who had been studying at Hartford Theological Seminary, returned to Bombay, India, where she began working at the American Marathi Mission, a position she would hold for the next thirty years. Gurubai helped the poor and the wealthy equally, but she was especially known for her work with children who suffered from famine and the plague. And if that wasn’t impressive enough, Gurubai also gave lectures on the state of women in India, speaking out against child marriage, and encouraged other women to leave the country on medical missions. When she retired, a wing in Bombay’s community welfare center Lincoln House (now the Nagpada Neighborhood House) was named in her honor.

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