Remember the ladies: 6 women who made a difference in public health

By Virginia Nowakowski, NPHR Editor

What do public health nerds and Game of Thrones fans have in common? “Jon Snow.” Anyone who studies public health has learned about John Snow, the “Father of Epidemiology” and his quest to understand a cholera outbreak in London. The man made a sizable contribution to public health through his research. But how many students learn about Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler or Dr. Selma Dritz?

As Women’s History Month draws to a close and National Public Health Week begins, here are some inspiring ladies who have helped to improve public health in America.

CrumplerPicDr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler
Born in 1831, Dr. Crumpler developed an interest in medicine after seeing her aunt care for sick neighbors. She worked as a nurse for eight years before becoming the first African American woman to earn an M.D. At the end of the Civil War, she moved from Massachusetts to Richmond, Virginia, braving racism often experienced by Black physicians in the South to provide medical care to underserved populations, including American Indians and other people of color. Dr. Crumpler joined several other Black physicians to serve the needs of freed slaves by coordinating medical care with the Freedmen’s Bureau and community and missionary groups. She also focused physicians’ attention more on the health of women and children, publishing a book specifically addressing their needs in 1883.

LacksPicHenrietta Lacks
Although Henrietta Lacks passed away in 1951, her legacy continues to change medicine and save lives. The young mother of five provided doctors with a sample of her cells, now known as HeLa cells, whose immortal nature have allowed scientists to study diseases in labs around the world even today. Her cells paved the way for the first HPV vaccine, a better understanding of telomeres and how cells stay young, the near-eradication of polio with Salk’s vaccine, a clearer picture of the human genome, and numerous discoveries about different viruses and the best ways to fight them. Lacks’ legacy has also played a major role in continuing conversations about ethics in health – as the high profile story about her and her family called attention to issues of privacy and discrimination in the field of medical care and public health.

BartonPicClara Barton
Barton actually started out as a teacher at the age of 15. However, she soon found her true calling in the midst of the American Civil War. She was determined to help the war effort in any way she could and eventually became an independent nurse. Following the Battle of Antietam, soldiers named Barton the “angel of the battlefield” for her diligent work in caring for the wounded. Barton continued to care for casualties of war in Europe during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. Her experiences there inspired her to form an American chapter of the International Red Cross, one of the best-known public health agencies in the world. With her leadership, the organization cared for the wounded in the Spanish American War; assisted those dealing with flood, famine, and tornados throughout the U.S.; and opened an international headquarters of the American Red Cross in Turkey.

DritzPicNotReuseDr. Selma Dritz
Much like the famous John Snow, Dritz worked to better understand the distribution of diseases in different populations through her work as an epidemiologist. After getting her M.D. from the University of Illinois and a master’s of public health from UC Berkley, she served as the Assistant Director of the San Francisco chapter of the CDC. In the 1980s, Dritz was at the forefront of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, showing empathy for those suffering from the condition and researching how the disease spread. Her data gave the CDC its first clear understanding of HIV and helped pave the way for public health campaigns to study and fight the disease throughout the United States.

NovelloPicDr. Antonia Novello
Novello knows what it feels like to be unwell. The first female and first Hispanic Surgeon General suffered from a medical condition throughout her childhood in Puerto Rico that inspired her to pursue medicine in hopes of helping others. After earning an M.D., she went on to gain experience in nephrology and pediatrics before joining the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corp in 1978. She obtained an MPH from Johns Hopkins in 1982, and took on the office of Surgeon General from 1990 to 1993. While in office, Novello advocated for the health of young people, women, and minorities. She fought tobacco ads aimed at children and emphasized the risk of HIV/AIDS for women and young people. After her time as Surgeon General, Novello improved public health by working with UNICEF and later serving as the Commissioner of Health for New York State. She continues to speak about disparities in health and the importance of health providers meeting patients where they are.

Rebecca OnieOniePic
While some college students struggle to put together plans for a night out, Onie was busy assembling the basics for a new health organization during her undergraduate years. As a Harvard underclassman, she witnessed how social determinants could strongly impact individuals’ health through her work with Greater Boston Legal Services. As she assisted families at risk of eviction with legal needs, she noticed that many had to make tough decisions on whether to pay rent or medical bills. To help individuals and families better meet food, housing, and other needs, Onie created Health Leads, a volunteer group of college students mobilizing to direct families to health resources. In the more than 20 years since then, Health Leads has transformed into a consulting organization that works with healthcare providers to connect patients to health and social resources.

VirginiaVirginia Nowakowski is a full-time MPH student in the generalist concentration. She graduated from Medill in June, and enjoys all things at the intersection of health and communication.




McCluskey, Priyanka Dayal. “Five Things to Know About Rebecca Onie.” The Boston Globe. 2017.
“Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler”. Changing the Face of Medicine. 2015.
“Dr. Antonia Novello”. Changing the Face of Medicine. 2015.
Samuel, Leah. “5 important ways Henrietta Lacks changed medical science”. STAT. 2017.
Perlman, David. “Selma Dritz, tracked early AIDS cases, dies.” SF Gate. 2008.
“Clara Barton Biography”. 2019.
Michals, Debra Ph.D. “Clara Barton”. National Women’s History Museum. 2015.

Rebecca Onie. Skoll Foundation. Flickr.
Henrietta Lacks. Oregon State University. Flickr.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler. Wikimedia Commons.
Clara Bartion. Library of Congress. Wikimedia Commons.
Antonia Novello. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Wikimedia Commons.
Selma Dritz. San Francisco Chronicle. The Lancet.

About NPHR Blog (339 Articles)
The is the blog of the Northwestern Public Health Review journal. The blog and journal are both student run and contain research articles, opinions, interviews and other content pertaining to public health.

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