Women in Medicine: Past and Future

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Women in Medicine: Past and Future © 2013 Clipart.com


To explore the scientific enterprise in relation to the role of women in science as it has developed over the last 150 years.


In the middle-school years, students should have learned that until recently, women and racial minorities, because of restrictions on their education and employment opportunities, were essentially left out of much of the formal work of the science establishment.

In this investigation, students will compare the careers of two women, a century apart, involved in medical research. They also will learn about xenotransplanation, the use of animal organs and tissues for transplant into human patients, which can be related to other ideas pertaining to The Scientific Enterprise benchmarks at this grade level, specifically #5 which relates to the ethical considerations of using human subjects in scientific research.

By the time students graduate from high school, they should feel comfortable talking in general terms about the nature of the scientific enterprise and should be able to understand discussions of science issues in the news.

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Refer students to the Women in Medicine student esheet, which will instruct them to read the story Elizabeth Blackwell: The First Woman Doctor, on Snapshots of Science and Medicine, a website from the National Institutes of Health for high-school students and teachers.

This article tells the story of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to graduate from a U.S. medical school in 1848. Students can read the story on the site or you can download it as text and make copies for the class. Ask students to jot down two or three details about Blackwell’s life as they read.

After students read the story, ask them to discuss the personal qualities and characteristics that helped Blackwell overcome the many obstacles she faced throughout her career. Ask the class if they feel women face similar obstacles today.

Have the class list the obstacles faced by Blackwell that they believe would still be a problem today and why.


Introduce this part of the lesson by saying: "We have read about the first woman to graduate from a U.S. medical school 150 years ago. Today, nearly half of the students in the country’s top medical schools are women. We will explore the changes in society that have made this progress possible. We also will look at some of the effects that having more women involved in medicine and science have had on society."

Hobart and William Smith College administers an Elizabeth Blackwell award. On the college's webpage, students can read more about Dr. Blackwell, including a slightly different version of her "accidental" admission into medical school. Students can read the biography and note any additional information or insight that it provides on Blackwell.

Next, have students use their student E-Sheet to go to and read the article called Researcher Suzanne Ildstad Facilitates Xenotransplants on the Snapshots webpage. To place Ildstad’s research into context, have students read the article on xenotransplantation, Doctors Have Tried To Use Animal Parts for Centuries, and follow the links on the timeline. Xenotransplants: Using Animal Organs To Save Human Lives, also on the Snapshots site, provides even more detail on the research in this area.

As they are reading, ask students to consider the role of Suzanne Ildstad’s research on the history of xenotransplantation. (Ildstad studies how to make the immune system tolerate transplanted organs' tissues.)

Finally, have students write a report called "From Elizabeth Blackwell to Suzanne Ildstad." In the report, students should discuss and elaborate upon the discussion questions below. In answering these questions, have students cite supporting evidence for their conclusions and write these down.

  • How has the status of women in our society changed since Blackwell's time? Have these changes made it easier or more difficult for women to succeed in research and medicine?
  • Has the involvement of more women in medical research fields changed science and medicine?
  • Has the fact that Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to graduate from a U.S. medical school in any way overshadowed her medical accomplishments?
  • What effect, if any, does Dr. Ildstad’s gender have on her research?

In addition to the information on the NIH site, students can use these websites for supporting evidence:

  • 4000 Years of Women in Science is a site that contains biographies and pictures of over 125 women who have contributed to the history of science and technology.
  • Women in Science is a comprehensive "women in science" website for grades 7-12 created for ThinkQuest International.
  • The Nobel Prize Internet Archive is a reference guide to past and present winners of the Nobel Prize for Peace, Literature, Medicine, Physics, Chemistry, and Economics. Most of the winners’ names are hyperlinked to a short biography.


In their comments and reports, it is important for students to demonstrate understanding that past values, beliefs, and attitudes were often different from those of today. In comparing the careers of two women in the medical sciences that are 150 years apart, students can place the scientific enterprise in its social and historical context. While contemporary women in science, like Dr. Ildstad, still face challenges to their careers because they are women, these challenges are not the same as those faced by Dr. Blackwell. In addition, students should consider the effects of social change and democracy on the scientific enterprise, and vice versa.


Seminars based on actual case studies provide a way to approach issues of ethics in science and the role of scientists in social decision making. Students can engage in informed discussion and debate regarding the ethical and legal merits of xenotransplantation. Newspapers, magazines, and science journals can provide documentary materials.

Students can write factual or opinion pieces and submit them to Snapshots of Science and Medicine. The best ones will be published on the Snapshots website.

Some topics that students could write about might include:

  • Profiles of local researchers or other people doing science on the job.
  • News stories about recent research, based on published material or any personal contacts the student might develop independently.
  • Position pieces on social and ethical issues raised by the theme topic.
  • Reviews of recent books or movies with a biomedical connection.
  • Discussion of an issue recently faced by the IRB (Institution Review Board) of a local research institution.
  • Reports of student-conducted research.

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