March is National Women’s Month, which recognizes and celebrates the contributions women have made throughout our nation’s history – and continue to make today. Women have engineered especially significant impacts in science and health care, and I’m proud to be one of the many leaders at Kaleida Health making Western New York’s community healthy and strong.
In the 1960 and 70s, the world was changing around me at an unprecedented pace. Gender norms were being challenged for the first time on a truly nationwide level. While it wasn’t unheard of to see women physicians, it was rare…and rarely encouraged. Plus, since the field was dominated by men, finding a mentor was particularly challenging.
Mentorship is vital to becoming a successful physician and surgeon — uniquely so for women trainees and even for young girls interested in the natural and physical sciences. I benefitted tremendously from having outstanding teachers and I’ve been committed to educating, training and mentoring future generations ever since. As an experienced surgeon, it’s important to share my knowledge and encouragement with tomorrow’s difference makers. I’ve guided hundreds of aspiring pediatricians, pediatric surgeons, and general physicians, helping them to develop their physical examination skills, surgical techniques, patient/family communication and empathy, collegial rapport, administrative knowledge, industry awareness and research interests.
Fittingly, my career has taken me to Buffalo, N.Y., just down the New York State Thruway from the birth of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in Seneca Falls. In 1968, that city also became home to the National Women’s Hall of Fame, which honors America’s most distinguished women. These pioneers made exceptional contributions to the arts, athletics, business, education, government, the humanities, philanthropy and — my favorite! — science. There are dozens of physicians and scientists among its nearly 300 inductees, including:
- Elizabeth Blackwell, who in 1849 became first woman awarded an M.D. Blackwell was rejected by all major medical schools, but she was granted admission to Geneva Medical School (now Hobart and William Smith Colleges), even though they believed it to be a prank by a rival school! She later faced difficulties setting up her New York City practice, and was even barred from the city’s hospitals. Undeterred, she founded her own infirmary as well as a Women’s Medical College. Blackwell’s Her standards were higher than those of all-male schools and her courses emphasized the importance of proper sanitation and hygiene as preventative practices against diseases.
- Mary Edwards Walker became the first female surgeon in America in 1855. She was also the first woman surgeon in the U.S. Army; she routinely crossed Confederate lines to treat civilians during the Civil War. In 1864, she was captured by the very people she was helping to heal and remained in a Richmond prison for four months. She was later given the Congressional Medal of Honor for her bravery — the first woman to receive this award.
- Virginia Apgar was a physician and humanitarian who in 1952 developed the Apgar Score – a system which determines whether a newborn needs special attention to stay alive. This simple test, performed in the very first minutes of a baby’s life, has saved countless newborns by enabling medical staff to quickly intervene if help is required.
- Dorothy Andersen, a pediatrician and pathologist, was the first to identify the genetic disorder cystic fibrosis in 1938, leading the way to numerous advances in the treatment and management of this fatal disease; and
- Nettie Stevens, a research biologist who in 1905 identified the “X” and “Y” chromosomes in humans, ended the scientific debate as to whether gender was determined by heredity or other factors.
Although not in the Hall of Fame (not yet anyway), the American College of Surgeons recently featured Matilda A. Evans, the first African-American woman surgeon licensed to practice medicine in South Carolina. Remarkably accomplished, she was a surgeon, obstetrician and gynecologist; she founded and ran two hospitals,and she was an author, educator, humanitarian and public health advocate.
There’s also Dr. Jane Cooke Wright, a surgeon-scientist who did groundbreaking work on breast and skin cancer using the chemotherapy drug methotrexate, which she pioneered. She is also credited with developing the technique of using human tissue culture rather than laboratory mice to test the effects of potential drugs on cancer cells. In addition, Wright was the first woman elected president of the New York Cancer Society, and in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed her to the President’s Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer, and Stroke.
Leadership and innovation continues today by amazing women around the world. The book, “Passion and Purpose: Black Female Surgeons,” by Dr. Praise Matemavi, is a collection of inspiring stories from 75 women who span numerous surgical subspecialties and continents. As the book’s introduction states, “…these women were girls with visions who had the courage and fortitude to follow their dreams and embark on journeys that for most, no one who looked like them embarked on before.”
I’m also proud of what Kaleida Health is doing to serve women and their unique issues during the pandemic. Women’s mental health, for example has many unique characteristics and nuances, and I’m very pleased to see our system offering programming like this free March 10 workshop, Bearing the Brunt: Navigating Women’s Mental Health & Wellness in Unprecedented Times.
Also, throughout this month, Kaleida Health will highlight inspirational women on our Facebook and Instagram pages, so be sure to follow these pages to learn more – and then share their amazing stories with your own children and families!
#womenshistorymonth #womeninscience #womeninSTEM #InternationalWomensDay