As part of International Women’s day on the 8th of March, we would like to take some time and re-visit some of the world’s best achievements in medicine. In this article will showcase five women who paved the path for modern day surgery. Of course, we are only scratching the surface and sadly will not be able to explore the vast plethora of women who have been pivotal in the development of modern day medicine and surgery.
The first female surgeon to be formally recognized was Eleanor Davies-Colley, who was admitted as a Fellow of the Royal College in 1911. A hundred years later there were 3073 fellows and members. At a time where the profession was entirely male dominated, Dr.Colley was amongst the earliest women in the UK to pursue a career in surgery. She co-founded the South London Hospital for Women and Children, and in later life, she was also a surgeon at the Marie Curie Cancer Hospital. She is also the founder of the Medical Women’s federation in 1917.
Helen Taussig was an American cardiologist who founded the field of pediatric cardiology. Notably, she has developed the concept for a procedure that would extend the lives of children born with Tetralogy of Fallot (the most common cause of blue baby syndrome). This was applied in practice as a procedure is known as the Blalock-Taussig shunt. In 1944; Taussig, surgeon Alfred Blalock, and surgical technician Vivien Thomas developed an operation to correct the congenital heart defect that causes the blue baby syndrome. Since then, their operation has prolonged thousands of lives and is considered a key in the development of modern adult open-heart surgery techniques.
In 1957, Taussig was elected a Fellow member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was honored by the American Heart Association with an award of merit ten years later. She was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and the following year became the first female president of the American Heart Association. Taussig earned over 20 honorary degrees throughout her career.
Virginia Apgar was an obstetrical anesthesiologist and a leader in the fields of anesthesiology and teratology. She introduced obstetric considerations to the established field of neonatology.
To the public, however, she is best known as the inventor of the Apgar score, a quick way to assess the health of newborn baby immediately after birth. In 1959, Apgar left Columbia and earned a Master of Public Health degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. Later, Apgar worked for the March of Dimes Foundation, serving as Vice President for Medical Affairs and directing its research program to prevent and treat birth defects.
Whilst Apgar was frequently the first or only woman in a department to serve in a position or win an accolade, she avoided the organized women’s movement, proclaiming that “women are liberated from the time they leave the womb”.
Jane Elizabeth Hodgson was an American obstetrician and gynecologist. She is the only person ever convicted in the United States of performing an abortion in a hospital. Hodgson received a bachelor’s degree from Carleton College and her M.D. from the University of Minnesota. She trained at the Jersey City Medical Center and the Mayo Clinic. Hodgson’s 50-year career focused on providing reproductive health care to women, including abortions. She opened her own clinic in St Paul, Minnesota and co-founded the Duluth Women’s Health Center. Not only did Hodgson provide medical care to women but she was also an advocate for women’s rights; challenging state laws that restricted access to abortion.
In response to a lawyer’s question during her trial, “Do you regard the fertilized ovum as equivalent to a human person?” Hodgson replied, “No, and most women would not. We are more pragmatic than men, more concerned with reality. I’m concerned with the sacredness of life, but this is only a few embryonic cells.” She continued, “We, as physicians, should be concerned with the quality of life as it develops.”
Margaret Allen is a cardiothoracic surgeon and an academic at the Benaroya Research Institute. She was the first woman to perform a heart transplant and is the former president of the United Network for Organ Sharing. At the end of her residency in 1985, Allen joined the surgical faculty of the University of Washington. She founded the University of Washington Medical Center’s heart transplant, which was the first of its kind in the Pacific Northwest region.
She was awarded “Woman of the Year” by the International Women’s Forum in 1990 and was named one of the “Best Doctors in America” for five consecutive years beginning in 1992. In 1994, she was elected national president of the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) and was the first woman to hold this position. We have only able to give you a brief insight into the remarkable journeys of women in surgery and the paths they have paved in the field of surgery. We hope you have been inspired by these bold intelligent women who transformed the face of medicine. As the number of women entering medicine increase and the number of women surgeons does too, we look forward to the future of surgery and the advancements which await us.