Phenomenal Women

History’s pages are filled with amazing, intelligent and determined female healthcare practitioners from around the world. This article will highlight three women who achieved medical success in spite of racism, sexism and other tribulations. 

In a male dominated discipline such as medicine, women had to fight for their place among men. They had to prove to their male counterparts and to the world that they were made to be more than mothers, wives, or homemakers. They could also be doctors.

Consider the extraordinary case of Dr. James Barry, a surgeon and one of the few doctors to successfully complete a Caesarean section, was a woman. Born in County Cork, Ireland around 1789, Dr. James Barry was christened Margaret Ann Bulky. From an early age, Margaret had a keen interest in medicine and the military, but she existed in a time when women were not allowed to practice medicine and were prohibited to enlist in the military. 

            When the family experienced financial trouble, a teenage Margaret moved to London to live with her maternal uncle, a Royal Academician and painter, James Barry. While there, she met and fostered friendships with Venezuelan-exiled General Francisco de Miranda and the Earl of Buchan, David Steuart Erskine. They were impressed by her intelligence and likely encouraged her to disguise herself to purse her medical dreams. When James Barry died in 1806, he left his fortune for his sister and niece but more importantly his name. Margaret changed her name to James Barry, moved to Edinburg and in 1809 enrolled in medical school. At the age of 22, she received her medical degree and enlisted in the army as an assistant surgeon. There were many times her age was questioned due to her small stature and high-pitched voice but not her gender. For 56 years, Margaret Ann Bulky masqueraded as a man to become a doctor. 

            On her deathbed, Margaret requested to be buried in the clothes she died in, possibly another attempt to conceal her identity. However, when she died the nurse did not honourher request and discovered her secret. At the time of her death, she was the Inspector General, in charge of military hospitals. She fought for better conditions and medical care for prisoners, lepers, soldiers, and their families. When you remember Dr. James Barry or Margaret Ann Bulky, remember that she was a brilliant surgeon, valiant soldier, humanitarian and her tenacity. 

            Dr. Mary Puthisseril Verghese was a great contributor to Physical Medicine and rehabilitation medicine in India. Despite the immense hardship in her life, she maintained a spirit of resilience and mental fortitude.

            At the vibrant of age of 29, she completed her graduate training at the Christian Medical College (CMC) and aspired to be a gynaecologist and joined the Gynaecological Department at the college.  Her medical future was bright, and the possibilities were endless. Everything changed on November 30th, 1954. While on an outing with colleagues, the vehicle in which they were travelling, struck a milestone causing the vehicle to flip numerous times, eventually landing upside down. Many of the passengers were critically injured and unconscious – including Mary. The accident left her disfigured and a paraplegic.

Ignoring her handicap, she relied on her desire to practice medicine and help her community. Her interest in rehabilitation came when a doctor suffering with polio returned from the Australian Rehabilitation Centre with remarkable improvement. Mary travelled to the rehabilitation centre in Perth and spent months learning skills to strengthen her body and increase her independence. This experience gave her the idea to establish a similar centre in India. She secured a fellowship at the Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in New York. While there she worked, studied and earned her driver’s license. After she successfully passed her exams, she was appointed as the head of the new Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in Vellore. In 1972, she was awarded the Padma Shri by the Government of India for her contributions to the field of medicine, and later in 1985 she received the Vision Award.

            Amid her many physical and mental trials, she achieved her dream and became Dr. Mary Puthisseril Verghese. As a doctor she helped her community by providing healthcare to those with spinal cord and brain injuries, and leprosy. 

            Traditionally, surgery has been a male dominated medical field because many believe it is too demanding for women. The common opinion is that surgery affects female surgeons’ home life more than their male counterparts. Even so, as customary with historical events, someone has to break the mold. 

Velma Scantlebury-White, née Scantlebury, was the first black woman transplant surgeon of the United States, but she was a Barbadian. She attended three years at the Allyene Secondary School before her family moved to New York in 1969. After finishing her secondary education in Brooklyn, she studied biology at Long Island University Brooklyn. In 1977 she graduated with a Bachelor of Science in biology and was enrolled at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, earning her medical degree in 1981.

            Although the surgical faculty tried to discourage her, she persevered and completed her general surgery internship and residency at Harlem Hospital Center. In 1989, she earned her Doctor of Surgery at the Pitt School of Medicine. 

            In over twenty-years of transplant surgery, Dr. Scantlebury-White has performed approximately more than 2,000 transplants and published numerous papers. For her contributions, she was awarded Woman of Spirit Award for inspiring others and the "Gift of Life Award" from the National Kidney Foundation, Carlow University, Woman of Spirit for inspiring other women and received the Order of Barbados Gold Crown of Merit, for efforts to educate minorities about organ transplant.But doctor Scantlebury-White would not have had a chance, had not for Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the African-American woman to achieve a medical degree in the United States.

            These are only three women but there are many who deserve to be a part of this article. Such as: Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross, Patricia Bath, the first African American to complete a residency in ophthalmology and the first African-American female doctor to receive a medical patent. She is the inventor of the Laserphaco Probe which has improved cataract treatment. Gertrude Belle Elion, a chemist who created the first major drug to fight leukemia, and others too numerous to mention.

            It is unfortunate that in spite all of the strides these women made, it is still difficult to become a female health practitioner. Recently in Japan it was alleged, that test scores of women entering the medical field was tampered with to reduce the number of them entering the medical profession. Regrettably, they have not progressed enough as a society for an incident like this to occur. In other parts of the globe, female doctors are lauded for their contributions to medicine and outnumber their male colleagues. For instance, women now outnumber men in British medical schools according to the British Medical Bulletin. At the beginning of the 20thcentury, the number of female physicians in the United States increased to more than 7000, a vast difference from what it was in 1860 which was only 200. Alas, globally, female physicians are still in the minority, but with the steady increase in recent years this will be a thing of the pass.