Feb. 3rd celebrates National Women Physicians Day

National Women Physicians Day is celebrated on February 3rd, marking the birthday of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the U.S.

National Women Physicians Day calls on us to honor the contributions and leadership of women in the field of emergency medicine, but to also reflect on the struggles that physicians identifying as women have overcome in medicine and science and the journey forward.

Established in 2016, National Women Physicians Day is celebrated on Feb. 3rd in recognition of the birthday of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States in 1849. Her path toward matriculation was particularly arduous: Blackwell’s applications were rejected by 29 colleges simply because she was a woman.

After assisting a friend who was suffering from a terminal illness and wishing she had a female doctor, Blackwell was inspired to pursue a career in medicine despite considerable opposition due to gender bias and discrimination. Blackwell — who wrote her PhD thesis on typhoid disease — earned first place in her class at Geneva Medical College in upstate New York in 1849. She worked in New York, London, and Paris and helped organize training for nurses for Union war effort during the Civil War. Along with her younger sister, Emily (a notable physician in her own right), Blackwell opened a women’s medical school and hospital in New York City. In the late 1860s, Blackwell went back to her native England to start a private practice and found a school for female doctors.

Though we still have work to do towards achieving equality, we are guided by Elizabeth Blackwell’s words: “I do not wish to give [women] a first place, still less a second one,” Blackwell said, “but the most complete freedom to take their true place, whatever it may be.”

Undaunted by the status quo, generations of extraordinary women trailblazers followed in Blackwell’s footsteps, including:

  • Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the first African American woman to earn a medical degree in the U.S. in 1864.
  • Susan La Flesche Picotte (Omaha) shattered not just one barrier, but two, to become the first Native American woman physician in the U.S. in 1889—35 years before Congress recognized Native Americans as U.S. citizens.
  • Mary Edwards Walter, an American feminist, suffragist, prisoner of war and surgeon, and the only woman to receive the Medal of Honor, which she was awarded for her service during the Civil War.

Two centuries after Blackwell’s graduation from medical school, women practicing in all fields of medicine make up more than one-third of all physicians in the United States and are the growing majority among medical students, according to the American Association of Medical Colleges. As emergency medicine continues to evolve, women are increasingly taking on leadership roles in the field and making a significant impact in the care of patients in emergency departments across the country. Women make up a growing percentage of emergency medicine residency programs, and are now well-represented in academic and clinical leadership positions.

In the BerbeeWalsh Department of Emergency Medicine, we strive to create a workforce that authentically reflects the diversity of the communities we serve in Madison and beyond. Founded by trailblazing physician and mentor Dr. Azita Hamedani, we consciously advocate for and promote women to leadership roles. Today, all of our vice chairs and associate vice chair are women, and many of our medical directors and division leads are women physicians (4 out of 12).

While a milestone as it relates to the inclusiveness of physicians identifying as women, significant work remains in achieving equitable access to medical education among underrepresented groups, as well as continued barriers women and marginalized groups face once in medical school and throughout their careers.

“There is still much work to be done,” say Dr. Mary Westergaard, associate professor of emergency medicine and founding president of the Group on Women in Medicine and Science (GWIMS) chapter at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, which that to convene and support women physicians and scientists. “SMPH is fortunate to have a community of women physicians passionate about elevating those around them and together driving needed change. These themes connect us both to our past and to a better future.”

We thank the more than 65 women faculty, fellows, residents and alumni of the BerbeeWalsh Department of Emergency Medicine for their service. We pledge to continue to foster a diverse, dynamic and inclusive culture that is supportive of women’s success.

Further reading

  1. Blackwell, Elizabeth. Address on the Medical Education of Women. New York: Baptist and Taylor, 1864. https://archive.org/details/AddressOnTheMedicalEducationOfWomen
  2. Blackwell, Elizabeth. The Influence of Women in the Profession of Medicine: Address Given at the Opening of the Winter Session of the London School of Medicine for Women. Baltimore, 1890. https://archive.org/details/influenceofwomen00blac
  3. Blackwell, Elizabeth. Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women: Autobiographical Sketches. London: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1895. http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/blackwell/pioneer/pioneer.html
  4. “Elizabeth Blackwell, M.D. Geneva, N.Y.” The Lancet, June 11, 1910. https://archive.org/details/LancetObituary06111910