On February 3rd we honor and recognize women physicians. This date was chosen as National Women Physicians Day because it was the birthday of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman physician licensed to practice medicine in the United States back in 1849.
As a black woman physician, I also stand on the shoulders of Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the first Black woman to obtain her Doctorate of Medicine and author of Book of Medical Discourses. Dr. Crumpler worked tirelessly to heal and educate newly freed slaves in the Freedman’s Bureau during the Reconstruction era.
I also stand on the shoulders of Jacqueline Howell, MD, my pediatrician and the first Black woman physician I ever knew. She was one of the only (if not the only) Black female pediatrician in my city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She was passionate about serving her community and being a role model to her patients, who largely looked like her.
Dr. Howell’s office was filled with other black women, including the front desk staff and her nurses. I still remember my favorite nurse, Billie, who pierced my ears when I was 4 years old. For over 50 years, Dr. Howell dedicated her life to serving the children in my hometown and her daughter followed in her footsteps years later.
Minority women physicians have been invaluable in improving the health of communities of color. Susan La Flesche Picotte was inspired to become the first Native American female physician after watching a doctor refuse to treat another member of her tribe because she was Native American. She later opened a private practice treating white and non-white patients and opened her own hospital in a reservation town in Nebraska.
In 2020, we as women physicians have come a long way. We are medical directors, Chief Medical Officers, CEOs of hospital systems, clinicians, as well as mothers, daughters, aunts and sisters to many.
However, the field of medicine has a long way to go to continue to diversify. Even though women make up over half of the incoming medical school classes, the field of medicine is still overwhelmingly male-dominated and not very ethnically diverse. Black women physicians still only make up approximately 2% of all practicing physicians. Native American women physicians are less than 1% of practicing physicians.
Today, in celebration of National Women Physicians Day and as a woman in a white coat, charge yourself to continue to develop the next generation. There are countless other Dr. Crumplers, Dr. Picottes, Dr. Blackwells and even Dr. Howells needing guidance to someday call themselves an MD or DO. Consider mentoring a pre-med or a medical student of color. There are countless patients needing her care, compassion and expertise. Our faces, presence, and voices matter to continue to diversify medicine and to continue to provide excellent care to our communities.
Kimberly Brown, MD, MPH is an emergency physician in Memphis, Tennessee. You can find her on Instagram @drkimberlyb.
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Hi. I loved your article. I am a 45 year old man and Dr. Howell and Billie were my pediatrician and nurse in Milwaukee. They were part of the family and I still think of them today. Both women are an inspiration for me and I’m happy to see them in your story.