Famous women in healthcare

 In Awareness Campaigns

On the 8th March, it will be International Women’s Day, a day which celebrates how far women have come, but also to acknowledge there is further to go, in the battle for gender equality.

The theme for this International Women’s Day is “Press for Progress” and aims to get women from all walks of life to come together and help “forge a better working world – a more inclusive, gender-equal world”.

Women, as well as men, have been at the forefront in pioneering life-changing advancements in healthcare, and today, on International Women’s Day, is as good of a day as any to celebrate their achievements! With this in mind, we thought we would look at famous women in healthcare, and how their boldness affected change that was of significant importance.

Women in healthcare

Florence Nightingale

One of the most famous women in nursing was, of course, Florence Nightingale. Everyone knows of her as “The lady with the lamp” and that she was a nurse in the Crimean war. However, she was so much more than that!

She was born in 1820 and completed her nurse training in 1851 at the Institute of Protestant Deaconesses at Kaiserswerth in Germany. Then with a team of nurses, 38 strong, she travelled to turkey to look after wounded British soldiers in the Crimean War, in 1854. On her arrival, the army doctors wanted nothing to do with her, but she would not leave.

She had seen the horrific clinical conditions the soldiers were in and was determined to go above and beyond the call of duty to improve their care. The hospital was overcrowded, with dirty floors, no proper toilets, blocked drains and rats running amuck. On top of that, the wounded men were eating mouldy bread and gone off meat.

Florence worked 20 hours a day to revolutionise the hospital’s standards. She made sure the men were eating better food, even hiring a French chef to cook their meals! She got workmen to unblock the drains and improved the cleanliness of the hospital exponentially. With the improved infection control, many lives were saved and far fewer men were dying of infections. Florence would then walk the wards at night with a lamp, ensuring all patients were comfy and she even sat with dying men for hours, writing letters home for those who couldn’t write.

Marie Curie

Marie Curie was a polish born, French physicist and chemist who was a revered scientist. Born in 1867, Marie went on to study physics and mathematics at the Sorbonne in Paris. This is where she met her husband Pierre Curie, who she married in 1895.

Together they investigated radioactivity and the pair eventually, in 1898, discovered a new element. This element was called Polonium and by the end of the year, they had discovered another, Radium. In 1903, the Curies were honoured with the Nobel Prize for Physics (Marie was the first woman to win this award), which they shared with Becquerel.

Sadly, in 1906, Pierre was killed in a cart accident, which left Marie to pick up the pieces. After her husband’s death, she became the first woman to teach at the Sorbonne and was determined to finish what the pair had started. This culminated in a second Nobel Prize, for chemistry, in 1911. This made her the first scientist to win two Nobel Prizes.

When World War One broke out, Marie Curie was passionate about the use of portable x-ray machines, so much so, they became known as “little Curies”. They saved the lives of many men during the war as they helped with a quick diagnosis. Marie Curie even drove the portable x-rays to the front lines.

Unfortunately, radiation was more of an unknown quantity back then, and little was known about what over exposure could do to the human body. It was rumoured Marie would carry tubes of radium in her pockets and unfortunately, this led to her death in 1934. This was due to leukaemia, caused by exposure to high-energy radiation.

She is regarded as the most famous female scientist of all time and in 1995 had the honour of being interred (along with her husband) in the Pantheon in Paris, the resting place of France’s greatest minds. Marie Curie was the only woman who resided there until 2014 when Germaine Tillion and Genevieve de Gaulle-Anthonioz, two French resistance fighters, were added.

Dame Cicely Saunders

Dame Cicely Saunders was born in 1918, in Barnet. She was heavily invested in the care of people and during her life was a nurse, a medical social worker and also a physician. She began her work with the terminally ill in 1948, where she gained a determination to improve the care of the dying.

The depth of involvement Dame Cicely Saunders had in pioneering the modern hospice movement is impressive. She “lectured widely on this subject, while writing many articles and contributed to numerous books”. In 1967, she opened St Christopher’s Hospice in South London, which is considered to be the first hospice of this new era in expert palliative care. It brought end of life care together with education and research, excelling in the care of pain, symptom control and compassionate care.

St Christopher’s Hospice gave Dame Cicely Saunders the platform to circulate her work through teaching and outreach, and radically improve the care of the terminally ill, and also the bereaved. Her Christian faith was a huge influence in her commitment to end of life care and was a factor in the naming of St Christopher’s Hospice. St Christopher was the patron saint of travellers, and this imagery was used in the context of helping people traverse this terrible period in their life.

Dame Cicely Saunders is recognised as the founder of the modern hospice movement” and has been rewarded for her work on multiple occasions. The awards included:

  • 25 honorary degrees
  • The British Medical Association Gold Medal for services to medicine
  • The Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion
  • The Onassis Prize for services to Humanity
  • The Raoul Wallenberg Humanitarian Award
  • The Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms for Worship Medal
  • Dame of the British Empire in 1979
  • Order of Merit in 1989

Dame Cicely Saunders passed away peacefully on the 14th July 2005 at St Christopher’s Hospice.

Margaret Sanger

Margaret Sanger was one of the most influential characters behind the push for women’s contraceptive rights in the early 20th century. Margaret was born in 1879 and came of age during a dark time for contraceptive rights. The Comstock Act was passed in 1873 and made contraception illegal as they believed it “promoted promiscuity”. Margaret Sanger was not one of those people. Her mother had 11 children and 7 miscarriages which had a weakening effect on her health which Margaret blamed for her early death. This made her determined to stop unrelenting, unwanted pregnancies.

The law remained unchallenged until Margaret decided to go against them. Under threat of fines and imprisonment, she started to give birth control information and devices to women. In 1916, Margaret along with her sister, Ethel Byrne and fellow activist Fania Mindell opened America’s first birth control clinic. They had women queueing down the blow for their help which showed just how desperate people were. However, 9 days later the police raided the clinic and shut it down. Margaret refused to pay the fine and was given a 30-day jail sentence.

In 1921, she foundedthe American Birth Control League, the precursor to the Planned Parenthood Federation”. Then in 1930, she opened another clinic in Harlem, which dealt primarily with African American citizens, who were being denied access to health and social services. However, it was 1936 where things started to turn. Margaret illegally bought pessaries (used in birth control) from Japan, which set off a chain of events that eventually led to a review of the Comstock Act. Birth control was now no longer classed as “obscene”.

However not content with this, she felt women deserved another form of contraception, rather than the unpopular diaphragm or condom. Since 1912 she had dreamed of a pill that would carry out the job safely and effectively. She went about finding a scientist who she believed could make her dream a reality and in 1951 her search ended. She met Gregory Pincus, who was an expert in human reproduction. He was willing to take on the challenge and Margaret set about finding an investor, who she found in Katherine McCormick. In 1960, all their efforts led to an FDA-approved contraceptive pill, called Enovid.

In 1966 Margaret passed away, after seeing her dream of a contraceptive pill fulfilled and the abolishment of the Comstock Act in 1965. The Supreme Court ruled it was a constitutional right to use contraceptives, something Margaret campaigned for all her life. Margaret’s boldness and tenacity changed the face of the quality of life enjoyed by women and her contraceptive pill is still used today.



  1. https://www.internationalwomensday.com/
  2. http://health.howstuffworks.com/medicine/healthcare/10-most-famous-nurses-in-history10.htm
  3. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/curie_marie.shtml
  4. http://www.biography.com/people/marie-curie-9263538#science-celebrity
  5. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/paris-adding-two-more-women-pantheon-new-total-three-180949864/
  6. http://www.stchristophers.org.uk/about/damecicelysaunders
  7. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/pill/peopleevents/e_comstock.html
  8. https://100years.plannedparenthood.org/#e1916-1936/1
  9. https://100years.plannedparenthood.org/#e1916-1936/5
  10. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/pill/peopleevents/p_sanger.html
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