Celebrating Inspiring Women Pioneers in Healthcare

March 28, 2022
6 min read

WRITTEN BY

Cynthia Alexander, MD

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March is Women's History Month—a time to recognize the sometimes-overlooked contributions of American women. Here, we’re highlighting a few female physicians who advanced modern medicine, paved the way for other women to thrive, and opened doors in women's healthcare.

As we look back, it’s important to recognize that we continue to reap the benefits of their work today, both in medical advances and with more women than ever filling leadership roles in healthcare. Our local health system, Mount Nittany Health, is led by Kathleen Rhine, president and CEO. She champions women’s healthcare in our region and continues to build upon the contributions of the past.

Celebrating the achievements of women in healthcare

Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell made history in 1849 as the first woman in the United States to earn a medical degree. In 1857 she opened the New York Infirmary to care for the poor. The Infirmary had its own medical institution where women could receive training and experience that wasn't available at traditional male-dominated hospitals.

Dr. Virginia Apgar made medical breakthroughs that led to increased infant survival rates in the United States. In 1952, she developed the Apgar Newborn Scoring System, a rapid method of assessing the clinical status of a newborn infant at one minute of age and the need for prompt intervention to establish breathing.

Dr. Myra Adele Logan was the first woman to perform open-heart surgery in 1943, in what was only the ninth operation of its kind conducted in the world at that time. Dr. Logan developed antibiotics and worked on early detection and treatment of breast cancer, helping to create an x-ray process to detect differences in tissue density—allowing earlier discovery of tumors.

Dr. Alexa Irene Canady was the first female Black neurosurgeon in the United States, graduating from medical school in 1975. In her work as a neurosurgeon, she cared for young patients facing life-threatening illnesses, gunshot wounds, head trauma, hydrocephaly, and other brain injuries or diseases.

Thanks in part to the work of these pioneering women, female physicians are much more common today, and women-focused healthcare is more widely available. For example, Mount Nittany Health is proud of its newly redesigned Joseph V. and Suzanne P. Paterno Women and Children's Services Unit, the largest unit of its kind in the region and recently named one of the "Best Places for Maternity" by U.S. News and World Report.

In addition to a female CEO, leadership across the health system includes women executives, physicians, board members, and more, all working to continue the advancement of women’s healthcare in the Centre County region.

Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell once said, "For what is done or learned by one class of women becomes, by virtue of their common womanhood, the property of all women." This March, in recognition of Women’s History Month, we celebrate Dr. Blackwell and all female physicians whose pioneering work in medicine helped advanced women's healthcare to what it is today. 

About The Author

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Dr. Alexander received a bachelor’s degree from The Pennsylvania State University and a medical degree from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in Pittsburgh, Pa. She then went on to complete an internal medicine internship and residency at UPMC in Pittsburgh. She is board certified in internal medicine.

After residency, Dr. Alexander practiced as an internist in Pittsburgh for six years, before relocating to State College. Since 2012, she has volunteered locally with Centre Volunteers in Medicine.

“I enjoy outpatient internal medicine because it gives me the chance to get to know my patients. Many of them have interesting stories to tell, and I find myself learning new things every day,” says Dr. Alexander, when asked what motivates her as a physician.

In her spare time, Dr. Alexander enjoys running, hiking, skiing, and gardening. Her husband, Jake Alexander, MD, is a radiologist at Mount Nittany Medical Center, and the couple has three children.

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