The past century has demonstrated tremendous progress in all disciplines of medicine. Parallel to this progress, and often a direct contributor to breakthroughs and achievements, has been the increasing role women have played in the profession. Neurosurgery is no exception. Although their ranks are small, especially compared to other specialties, the women of neurosurgery have played an outsized role in its rise as a specialty in the last hundred years.
The first major female contributor to the specialty was Louise Eisenhardt, MD. Dr. Eisenhardt had a unique and close working relationship with Harvey W. Cushing, MD, who is regarded as the father of modern neurosurgery. Dr. Eisenhardt was considered Dr. Cushing’s “right hand.” Before deciding to go to medical school, she began work in 1915 as an editorial assistant for Dr. Cushing. She continued to work for him while enrolled at Tufts University School of Medicine. Dr. Eisenhardt later rejoined Dr. Cushing as a neuropathologist and served as his surgery associate from 1928 to 1934, making on-the-spot diagnoses of tumors and tissues as Dr. Cushing removed them. While continuing to make pathologic diagnosis of tumor tissues, she kept a cumulative case log, co-authored papers with Dr. Cushing and taught neuropathology at Tufts. In 1938, Dr. Eisenhardt became the curator of the Yale University Brain Tumor Registry, which she and Dr. Cushing established. In 1944, she became the first Editor of the Journal of Neurosurgery — the official journal of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS) — and remained in that role for 22 years. From 1938-1939, Dr. Eisenhardt served as the first female president of the AANS (formerly known as the Harvey Cushing Society).
Over the years, other female neurosurgeons continued to expand the role of women in the specialty and made significant impacts in the field of neurosurgery. In 1986, Frances K. Conley, MD, MS, FAANS (L), became the first female to be appointed to a full tenured professorship of neurosurgery at a medical school in the U.S. In 1991, she made national headlines when she announced her intention to resign her tenured position as a neurosurgery professor at Stanford University Medical School in protest against the sexist attitudes of a male colleague who had recently been promoted. In 1998, her book Walking Out on the Boys was published, in which she recounted her experiences as a female surgeon and the sexism within the medical profession.
Ruth Kerr Jakoby, MD, FAANS (L), became the first female diplomate of the American Board of Neurological Surgery (ABNS) in 1961. In addition to her many other accomplishments, she served as president of the Washington Academy of Neurosurgery in 1972. In 1986, she became the first female neurosurgeon to become a lawyer. In 1981, Alexa Irene Canady, MD, FAANS (L), became the first African American female in the U.S. to become a neurosurgeon. She was also the recipient of two honorary doctorate degrees and was inducted into the Michigan Woman’s Hall of Fame in 1989.
In recent years female neurosurgeons have risen to the very top ranks of the specialty. In 2005, Karin M. Muraszko, MD, FAANS, became the chair of the University of Michigan Department of Neurosurgery, making her the first woman to chair an academic neurosurgical department in the United States. She also became the first female appointed as a director of the ABNS. In 2018, Odette Harris, MD, MPH, FAANS, obtained a tenured neurosurgery professor position at Stanford University School of Medicine, making her the first Black female to do so in the U.S. From 2018-2019, Shelly D. Timmons, MD, PhD, FAANS, was the first female neurosurgeon to serve as AANS president and the second female to rise to this position — 79 years after Dr. Eisenhardt. In 2019, Dr. Timmons also became the chair of the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Indiana.
Thankfully, the upward trend of women in neurosurgery continues. According to the ABNS, 7.4% of the 6,069 active diplomates are women, and 16% of the 1,489 neurosurgery residents are women. These percentages are expected to rise as more women enter neurosurgery training programs. This promises to make the second century of our specialty full of even more notable breakthroughs and achievements.
Editor’s note: We hope that you will share what you learn from our posts. We invite you to be part of the conversation on Twitter by following @Neurosurgery and using the hashtag #WomenInNeurosurgery and #CelebratingWINSat30.
Disep I. Ojukwu, MD, MBA, MPH
St. George’s University School of Medicine, Class of 2019
Laura Stone McGuire, MD
University of Illinois College of Medicine at Chicago