I realize it’s very easy to despair about all the terrible things that too frequently tend to dominate the current news media, from global pandemics to political division of our country and catastrophic weather.
But, at the same time, we should also allow ourselves the space to step back, ponder and celebrate all the wonderful strides we have made as a society, including in the arenas of scientific and medical discoveries, information technology and social networking achievements, unprecedented cross sector collaborations and innovations, advancement of overall human rights and, this month specifically, the many accomplishments of women.
Given we are now in the middle of Women’s History Month, and with National Doctors’ Day coming up on March 30, I’ve been reflecting quite a bit about the countless ways in which smart, fearless, trailblazing women have historically advanced the field of medicine. It boggles the mind to consider the seemingly insurmountable hurdles these pioneering women had to overcome to make their marks in what, until the latter part of the 20th century, was essentially a male-dominated industry.
Some names come to mind immediately thanks to their prevalence in textbooks. For example, Elizabeth Blackwell, who was the first woman to be granted an M.D. degree and later founded the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children to serve the poor. Clara Barton, who was a well-recognized, heroic Civil War nurse and thereafter founded the American Red Cross.
Certainly, any woman who has ever set foot inside a research laboratory owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to Marie Curie, the Polish scientist who, as a young woman, was prohibited from attending the University of Warsaw because of her gender. Nevertheless, she tirelessly pursued her career and remarkably became the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize for her revolutionary research on radioactivity. Most notably, she was the first person ever to win that prize twice — once for physics in 1903 and again for chemistry in 1911.
Yet there are so many other women in the annals of medical history who do not get nearly enough recognition for their transcendent work — people like Rebecca Lee Crumpler, who in 1864 became the first African American woman in the United States to be granted an M.D., and Virginia Apgar, the anesthesiologist who in 1952 devised the Apgar Score, which became the standard methodology for determining a newborn’s health status at birth.
Does Dr. Ann Preston’s name ring a bell? It should, because Dr. Preston is another truly dynamic figure worth recognizing. In 1850, the lifelong Philadelphian was part of the first class of women to enroll in the Female (later Women’s) Medical College of Pennsylvania. Later on, when the Board of Censors of the Philadelphia Medical Society effectively banned women doctors from the city’s public teaching clinics, an undeterred Preston raised the needed funds to establish The Women’s Hospital in 1858. Eventually, she created a school of nursing and then was named the first woman dean of the Women’s Medical College in 1866.
It’s a wonderful story, and today Dr. Preston’s good name lives on thanks to the Pennsylvania Eastern Region Chapter of the American College of Physicians. In 2019, the chapter established the Dr. Ann Preston Women in Medicine Award, which is given to an ACP chapter member whose efforts and achievements have promoted career success, leadership and overall quality of life for women in medicine, in turn fostering tomorrow’s women leaders in the field.
Last year, I had the very good fortune to receive the ACP’s Ann Preston Award. It’s an honor I don’t take lightly — I’m truly humbled to stand on the shoulders of giants like Dr. Preston. As it happens, the award also gave me the opportunity to think about great women mentors that I had during my years as a Michael DeBakey Scholar at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, as a fledgling physician at Harvard’s Combined Internal Medicine/Pediatrics Residency in Boston, and during my two decade career here at The Wright Centers for Community Health and Graduate Medical Education.
Since returning to Northeast Pennsylvania to practice primary care, I’ve continued to be influenced by so many incredible women within our local health care community and also within our Wright Center organizations. I am profoundly inspired and energized by our incredibly talented women physician leaders who work at The Wright Center, such as Dr. Alexies Samonte, medical dDirector of Pediatric Services; Dr. Mary Louise Decker, medical director of Infectious Disease Services; Dr. Susan Baroody, medical director of The Wright Center’s Scranton Practice and regional director of Medical Education School of Osteopathic Medicine in Arizona; Dr. Maureen Litchman, Family Medicine Residency Program director and medical director of The Wright Center’s Kingston Practice; Dr. Deborah Spring, associate program director of Family Medicine and Geriatrics; Dr. Erin McFadden, regional director of Medical Education School of Osteopathic Medicine in Arizona and Interprofessional Education; and Dr. Jumee Barooah, designated institutional official for The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education, among many, many others.
That said, as necessary as it is to pay tribute to those who help us carry out our daily purpose and mission today, it’s just as important to reflect and acknowledge the women who came before us. It’s because of them that we get to do our amazing work in health care delivery and medical education. They are truly inspiring. We have a tremendous responsibility to pass their blessings to us forward by ensuring that we collectively each do our part for our daughters and all the women who follow in our footsteps.
Linda Thomas-Hemak, M.D., a primary care physician triple board-certified in pediatrics, internal medicine and addiction medicine, leads The Wright Center for Community Health as CEO and serves as president of The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education. She lives with her family and practices primary care in Jermyn. Send your medical questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.