Many early advocates of the rightful place of women in the professions argued that women had a special obligation to help those most at risk. By the first decades of the 1900s, women physicians were establishing innovative public health programs and labor reforms designed to protect the most vulnerable members of society.
As the century progressed, the discrimination experienced by women and minorities fueled broad social movements for change. Women physicians involved in this struggle became advocates for those suffering from neglect or abuse.
Alice Hamilton was a leading expert in the field of occupational health. She was a pioneer in the field of toxicology, studying occupational illnesses and the dangerous effects of industrial metals and chemical compounds on the human body. She published numerous benchmark studies that helped raise awareness of dangers in the workplace. In 1919 she became the first woman appointed to the faculty at Harvard Medical School, serving in their new Department of Industrial Medicine. She also worked with the state of Illinois, the U.S. Department of Commerce, and the League of Nations on various public health issues. READ MORE
Dr. Martha May Eliot worked for the Children's Bureau, a national agency established in 1912 to improve the health and welfare of American children, for over 25 years. First employed as director of the bureau's Division of Child and Maternal Health, Eliot went on to become assistant chief, and then chief, of the whole organization. She was the only woman to sign the founding document of the World Health Organization, and an influential force in children's health programs worldwide. READ MORE
Through her efforts to support abortion rights, abolish enforced sterilization, and provide neonatal care to underserved people, Helen Rodriguez-Trias expanded the range of public health services for women and children in minority and low-income populations in the United States, Central and South America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. READ MORE
Dr. Mary Steichen Calderone brought an uncomfortable subject to the forefront of public debate in her work in sex education. Beginning in the 1950s, when public discussion of such issues was considered highly controversial, Dr. Calderone flouted convention by speaking out in the first place, and as a woman broaching such a topic. In 1964 she founded the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), to promote sex education for children and young adults. READ MORE
Dr. Dorothy Ferebee was a tireless advocate for racial equality and women's health care. In 1925 in a derelict section of Capitol Hill, she established Southeast Neighborhood House, to provide health care for impoverished African Americans. She also set up the Southeast Neighborhood Society, with playground and day care for children of working mothers. At Howard University Medical School, she was appointed director of Health Services. She was founding president of the Women's Institute an organization that serves educational, community, government, and non-profit organizations, as well as individual patients. READ MORE
Sister Fernande Pelletier, M.D., a member of the Medical Mission Sisters (founded 1925) has worked overseas for more than forty years, carrying out the mission of her order in Ghana and offering medical care to underserved populations. Her incredible devotion and service has been rewarded by the Ghanaian government, and in rural communities far from fully-equipped hospitals, she continues to care for those in need. READ MORE
Joycelyn Elders, the first person in the state of Arkansas to become board certified in pediatric endocrinology, was the sixteenth Surgeon General of the United States, the first African American and only the second woman to head the U.S. Public Health Service. Long an outspoken advocate of public health, Elders was appointed Surgeon General by President Clinton in 1993. READ MORE