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  • Writer's picturePam King Sams

Profiles of Women in Medicine 1920 -2020. One century, bracketed by two global pandemics.

One century, bracketed by two global pandemics. Between 1920 and 2020, women rose from second-class citizenship to take the reins as pioneering leaders in medicine, among all other areas of public life. Decade by decade, the lives of women medical graduates from the Perelman School of Medicine offer snapshots of that shift.

A century ago, the United States was embroiled in change. The nation had recently weathered the 1918 flu pandemic and welcomed home its veterans from the Great War. The pandemic had drafted Penn medical students from the classes of 1919 and 1920 into volunteer medical service as the deadly disease ravaged Philadelphia.

In August 1920, ratification of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave women the right to vote. Progressive-era movements opened up educational and career opportunities.

The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine opened doors to women shortly before 1920—but for several decades to come, women made up only a tiny sliver of the medical student population and the medical profession writ large. One hundred years later, women comprised 54 percent of the graduating Class of 2020, a class moving on amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. In the decades between the two pandemics, women medical students, physicians, and biomedical scientists have faced shifting challenges in pursuit of distinguished careers and lives. Each one has a story.

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