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Medical Advances

Female Physicians Break Barriers to Success

Women Changing Medicine

Whether it’s, “No, you shouldn’t,” or, “No, it’s not possible,” many female physicians have been told “no” at some point in their career. Here, three Northwestern Medicine physicians discuss their experiences in the field and hopes for the future for women in medicine.

Past: Paving the Way

In a time when certain racial and gender groups couldn’t vote, Mary Harris Thompson, MD, forged her way where no woman had gone before. In 1870, Dr. Thompson was Northwestern University’s first female medical school graduate. She founded the Chicago Hospital for Women and Children, and became the first woman surgeon in Chicago and one of the most famous surgeons — male or female — in the country at the time. She was also named professor of Hygiene and Clinical Obstetrics and Diseases of Women at the Woman’s Hospital Medical College, which would later become affiliated with Northwestern University.

Dr. Thompson and the women who followed in her footsteps broke many barriers, paving the way for several generations of women in medicine.

Northwestern Medicine Trauma Surgeon Mamta Swaroop, MD, shares, “My mom was a physician as well. She was an obstetrician-gynecologist in India and was in one of the very first classes of nuclear medicine in the world, in London.” Her mother’s success was a major source of inspiration for Dr. Swaroop, who credits her mother for who she is as a person. Medicine was an ever-present theme in her childhood, and Dr. Swaroop often nursed neighborhood animals back to health.

For some, like Northwestern Medicine Cardiologist Patricia Vassallo, MD, the inspiration to enter the medical field came from a different family member: her father. Dr. Vassallo’s grandfather was in his 40s when he died suddenly of a heart attack. “He was complaining of chest pain, but no one really listened,” she explains. “My father went into cardiology, and I watched him help patients with coronary disease live long and productive lives.”

Illness also inspired the career of Northwestern Medicine Neurosurgeon Sheri Dewan, MD, who at a young age witnessed her mother having a brain aneursym. She received care at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital, and Dr. Dewan now practices there. “Doug L. Johnson, MD, clipped her aneursym,” she explains. “He was very inspirational to me. I wanted to follow the path of saving another mother’s life because of what I saw happen to my own.”

Present: Making Strides

While more women are becoming physicians today, gender imbalances remain within the field. That doesn’t deter these women from blazing a trail for those who will come after them.

“There are fewer women practicing subsurgical specialties, so I didn’t encounter many women in the field,” says Dr. Dewan, who is one of only 219 board-certified female neurosurgeons in the U.S. “Because of this hurdle, I started to believe the two couldn’t coexist. In addition, I wanted to have a family. I was expressly told you shouldn’t get married or have children. But ultimately, I knew I wanted those things. I had a decision to listen or follow my own path.”

Dr. Vassallo, who loves being part of an exciting, innovative field, was told to choose another specialty. “I was told initially I shouldn’t pick cardiology, because I worried a lot,” she recalls. “It’s a male-dominated field, but more women are entering it. I think the key for anyone is to do something they are passionate about, and you can work through those challenges.”

When Dr. Swaroop decided to turn her attention to global surgery, she said she was met with opposition. “I was told that that pathway didn’t exist. I don’t like to be told I can’t do something,” she says. Instead, she perservered, and continues to bring advocacy and programmatic development to communities across the world. “If you truly believe in something, it ignites you. You can’t take no for an answer. You just have to do it.”

When she is not serving communities worldwide, Dr. Swaroop is serving those closest to home. “My life ranges from being in the trauma bay, and taking care of patients and their families on the worst days of their lives,” she says.

Future

The future of women in medicine is bright, thanks in part to the efforts at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine to foster an inclusive environment. The medical school has 1,043 women faculty members, and women hold 93 senior administrative leadership roles ― the most ever in the school’s history. Read more statistics below.

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Continued progress requires a concerted effort from those who lead today and who take deliberate actions to pave the way for others.

Dr. Swaroop is one of the 379 women leading clinical trials or research at Feinberg School of Medicine. “I don’t want a legacy,” she says. “I want everyone to be better than me and achieve greatness.” Dr. Swaroop makes it a point to mentor others, is active with a multitude of organizations for gender parity and, most recently, played an active role in both the Women In Medicine Symposium at Northwestern Medicine and the Women in Medicine Summit.

Dr. Dewan is committed to encouraging more women to pursue subspecialties. “We encompass 6% of the field,” she says. “One of my missions and goals is to increase that number. I’ve done that through a number of strategies. I’m on the board for Women in Neurosurgery, and we hope to increase that number to 20% in the next 10 years.”

Dr. Vassallo notes that having more women in medicine will help shape the future of health care. “More women are entering subspecialities and making an impact on the way we deliver care,” says Dr. Vassallo. “When you get different perspectives, you can show the world a different model. And that’s what diversity brings to medicine.”

Dr. Swaroop, Dr. Dewan and Dr. Vassallo are just a few of the many female care providers who are blazing trails and forging new paths at Northwestern Medicine, making lasting changes in their communities and the world. Their voices, their work, and a commitment to fostering an environment of inclusivity for all help Northwestern Medicine break down barriers in its relentless pursuit of better medicine.