Three women doctors

Rise, Serve, Lead! America’s Women Physicians

To commemorate Women’s History Month, NLM launched the exhibition Rise, Serve, Lead! America’s Women Physicians on March 4th. Rise Serve Lead! features a database of over 300 biographies of women who have made a difference through their medical practice and research, work as activists, service as administrators, and mentorship to the next generation of physicians. The online exhibition also includes a K-12 educational resource and digital gallery of NLM collection items authored by women featured in the exhibition. Ashley Bowen, PhD, is guest curator of Rise, Serve, Lead!. Circulating Now interviewed her about her work on the exhibition.

Circulating Now: Rise, Serve, Lead! is connected to a previous exhibition by NLM, why is it important to revisit this subject now?

Ashley Bowen: The original exhibition, Changing the Face of Medicine: Celebrating America’s Women Physicians, debuted in 2003. I doubt anyone thought that sexism in medicine had ended by the time the exhibition launched. However, I think that the last year or two has really driven home how difficult it is for women in male-dominated fields. With #MeToo and #TimesUp sparking a conversation about women in the workplace, education system, and media, it felt like the right time to revisit an exhibition about women breaking barriers in professional medicine and biomedical research.

A Native American woman in scrubs and a mask does surgery
Dr. Lori Arviso Alvord performs surgery, undated
Courtesy Lori Arviso Alvord, MD

CN: Were you drawn to a particular individual’s story?

AB: All of the women in this exhibition are incredible. Reading through their biographies I definitely had moments of feeling like, “what have I done with my life? She founded a hospital/invented some major piece of technology/fought discrimination (and won!) by the time she was my age.” It’s hard for me to say that one story drew me in more than the others. If I had to pick just woman’s story to have you read, it’d probably be Dr. Helen Rodríguez-Trías biography. Her personal, political, and professional life broke barriers and challenged assumptions about women’s place in the world. She was an incredible woman and an inspiration to me personally.

A Latina talks to another Latina holding a child, surrounded by women
Dr. Helen Rodríguez-Trías speaking to mothers, ca. 1963
Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

CN: We’re welcoming you back to NLM; you worked here in the History of Medicine Division for a number of years. Would you care to share an anecdote about your time here working with the collections?

Casual portrait of a young white woman in front of a bookshelf.AB: The NLM is such a fun place to work—the days where I got to request items from the collections were always good days. One day, while working on an upcoming exhibition about the development of the rubella vaccine, I came across a photograph of two named researchers, Dr. Paul Parkman and Dr. Harry M. Meyer, Jr. working with an unnamed female scientist. This really stuck in my craw, why wasn’t she named? I went on a mission to find out who she was. As it turned out, the woman in the photo was Hope Hopps, an accomplished scientist in her own right. You can read all about this photo in a piece I wrote about it for Circulating Now several months ago.

CN: You’ve worked in several history fields, what sparked your interest in this medical history subject?

AB: Women play such an important role in medical history as professional physicians but also as nurses, midwives, herbalists, and by providing the home-based, informal healthcare that sustains people through illnesses. The history of women as credentialed physicians is both long, Dr. Blackwell earned her MD in 1849, and really short—it’s only been 170 years since Dr. Blackwell earned her degree.

CN: What would you like visitors to take away from this exhibition?

AB: Women had to fight for a place in the medical profession, but they didn’t do it alone. This is a story about both the barriers that women faced in pursuit of their profession and a story of how they help each other. We conclude the exhibition with stories about women physicians who serve as mentors and work to make the profession better and more supporting for today’s medical students or kids considering going into medicine.

Explore the online exhibition Rise, Serve, Lead! America’s Women Physicians.

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