Throughout history, disease has been a subject of fear and interest. Medical advances have added years to our life expectancy and increased quality of life, especially for those with diseases that are yet to be fully understood. Of course, this would be an impossible feat without those individuals who dedicate their lives to understanding the complex mysteries of the human body, disease and medicine. Embarking on a medical journey is not without its challenges. Studying medicine can be expensive, and straining on the mind and body. There are many healthcare professionals, such as Dr. Suhyun An, who understand the challenges that medical students face and often offer financial support, in the form of scholarships (like the Dr. Suhyun An Scholarship) to students who are dedicated to the study of medicine.

The road to medicine may be daunting, but it is also immensely fulfilling and exciting. Here are some inspiring medical pioneers who have overcome the odds to complete their medical degrees and dedicate their lives to helping those in need:

Dr. James McCune Smith: First African American to Receive a Medical Degree

Born enslaved in New York City, Dr. James McCune Smith (1813 – 1865) was an intellectually gifted child who excelled in school at a young age. Despite being liberated by the Emancipation Act in 1827, Smith met with prejudice and was refused admission by top colleges in America on account of his race. Smith’s benefactors raised funds to pay for his education at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, where he earned three degrees and graduated at the top of his class. Smith became the first African American to receive a medical degree in 1837.

Returning to New York, Smith opened his own practice in general surgery and medicine, and established the first black-owned pharmacy in the US. He also worked as the sole physician in the Colored Orphan Asylum for almost 20 years. Smith became the first African-American physician to write a medical case report and publish a scientific paper. A prolific writer and essayist, Smith re-examined and refuted racially biased statistics and scientific claims in his writings. Smith had also dedicated much of his life to fight for the freedom and rights of black people, and the abolishment of slavery.

Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell: First Woman to Receive a Medical Degree in America

Born in the UK during a time when a woman’s place was thought to be a homemaker or a schoolteacher, Elizabeth Blackwell’s (1821 – 1910) interest laid in education and reform. Blackwell’s interest in medicine sparked when her close friend said that she would have been spared her worst sufferings if a female physician had doctored her.

Several physicians known by her family had told her that her quest to become a physician was too expensive and not available to women. She, however, convinced two physician friends to allow her to read medicine with them privately while she applied to medical schools in America. Rejected by more than 10 medical schools, Blackwell was eventually accepted into Geneva Medical College in New York. She became the first woman to receive a medical degree in America in 1849, and the first woman to be listed on the Medical Register of the General Medical Council in the UK. Her journey did not end there. The prejudice that she faced as a student followed her as she tried to establish herself as a physician. After facing countless obstacles, Blackwell co-founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children to serve the poor. The institution’s medical college was opened 11 years later to provide training and support for women hoping to pursue medical careers.

Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte: First Native American Woman to Receive a Medical Degree in America

Susan La Flesche Picotte (1865 – 1915) was inspired to pursue a career in medicine when she witnessed a Native American woman die because the local white doctor would not treat her. La Flesche was accepted into the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, one of the few colleges that was established for the education of women. She could not, however, afford to enter medical school on her own. With the help of an ethnologist that she had previously cared for, La Flesche applied for and was granted federal aid to pursue her medical degree. She graduated as the valedictorian, and became the first Native American woman to receive a medical degree in America in 1889.

La Flesche returned to the Omaha Reservation where she was born to become a physician for the Omaha people at the government boarding school. Despite having no obligation to care for the wider community, she quickly became a trusted physician for over 1,200 people. She campaigned for public health reforms on the Reservation, and sought to educate her community on issues such as preventative medicine and food sanitation. She raised funds to build the Walthill hospital, now known as the Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte Memorial Hospital, to provide better healthcare for members of her community.

Many medical pioneers faced resistance throughout their education and careers, yet they persisted despite the prejudice thrown at them. The story of these inspiring figures will hopefully serve as a source of motivation to persevere through difficult times.