The ancient Egyptians knew a thing or two about good skin care. Queen Cleopatra was known to use sour milk baths to improve the texture of her skin – today, we know that sour milk contains lactic acid, a naturally-occurring exfoliant. She is also rumored to be the author of Cosmetics, a manual outlining advice for skin and body care that was widely circulated amongst the Egyptians. In the most medieval sense of the term, we could define Queen Cleopatra as one of the first women to advise others on dermatological matters.
The history of women in dermatology is not well-documented. Their place in the field has been built and fought for from the ground up, because up until the 1800s the only medical profession women were able to hold was that of midwives.
In 1850 the first medical school for women – The Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP) – opened in Philadelphia. The school was a beacon for women who wanted to practice medicine and had no other opportunity to do so. Amongst its programs, dermatology appeared in the 1880s, and WMCP was home to the first female dermatologist in the United States, Dr. Rose Hirschler, who graduated in 1899. In 1918 Dr. Hirschler served as the Acting Clinical Professor of Dermatology at WMCP for one year from 1918 – 1919. In 1936 she was appointed Professor of Dermatology and chair of the department at WMCP, a significant achievement for a woman whose line of work was still predominantly controlled by men. Dr. Hirschler was a pioneer woman who not only practiced dermatology professionally, but also taught and mentored other young women in the field, thus creating a place for females in a male-centered career.
WMCP paved the way for women to pursue the practice of medicine, and their program in dermatology fostered a number of well-known innovators in the field, including Dr. Margaret Gay Wood, who was the first dermatologist to use the electron microscope as a diagnostic tool.
In 1973 women’s influence is dermatology expanded further with the founding of The Women’s Dermatological Society (WDS). In a twist of irony, WDS was established by Dr. Walter Shelley, a male academic dermatologist who recognized the need for an organization that brought women together to celebrate their accomplishments in the field. Dr. Wilma E. Bergfeld was elected as the society’s first president, and in 1992 Dr. Bergfeld staked an even larger claim for female dermatologists by becoming the first female president of The American Academy of Dermatology, which is the largest dermatology specialist group in the United States. Today, WDS is the third-largest dermatology specialist group in the United States.
Maria Duran was another prominent woman who brought attention to the field. She served as Secretary General of the International Society of Dermatology (ISD) from 1989 – 1999, and as Executive Vice-President of ISD from 1999 – 2000. Maria Duran devoted her life and career to the betterment of women in all aspects of society. At the same time, the Turkish dermatology professor Dr. Turkan Saylan devoted her life and career to fighting leprosy and preventing the sexual exploitation of young girls across developing countries. Together, Dr. Duran and Dr. Saylan established a Women’s Dermatology Day in a joint meeting of the ISD and the Dermatology and Venereology Society of Istanbul in June 1995. Female dermatologists from many countries were represented for discussions at the event.
In honor of the recent International Women’s Day on March 8th, we here at Florida Dermatology and Skin Cancer Centers want to say thank you to the women dermatologists who have fought and continue to fight for the education and treatment for all in good skin care. And we extend a particularly warm thank you to our women professionals at Florida Dermatology, who work hard every day to provide personalized care to all our wonderful patients. Explore our website today to learn more about our staff and the services we offer.
Kural, E., Roccia, M.G., Franca, K., Lotti, T., Tirant, M., and Fioranelli, M. The history of women in dermatology. Wiener Medizinische Wochenschrift. Published February 2017.
Murrell, Dedee F., MA, BMBCh, MD, FACD, Ryan, Terence J., DM, FRCP, and Bergfeld, Wilma F., MD. Community Dermatology: Advancement of women in dermatology. International Journal of Dermatology. Published May 2011.