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02.21.2024

Neurology through history: Celebrating the trailblazing women of neurology

In the field of neurology, the contributions of women throughout history have played a pivotal role in shaping our understanding of the brain and its intricacies. From trailblazers to modern neuroscientists, these remarkable women have defied societal norms and paved the way for future generations. In this list, we honor their enduring legacies and celebrate their impact on the world of neurology.

Augusta Déjerine-Klumpke MD (1859–1927)

Dr. Augusta Déjerine-Klumpke was an American-born neurologist who significantly contributed to the understanding of nerve injuries and brain lesions. She was among the first women to graduate from the Paris Faculty of Medicine. Déjerine-Klumpke's most notable work includes her research on the anatomy of the brachial plexus and the eponymous Klumpke's palsy, a form of paralysis involving the muscles of the forearm and hand.

Mary Whiton Calkins (1863 – 1930)

An American psychologist, Calkins conducted pioneering research in psychology and neuropsychology. She is known for her work on memory, dreams, and the psychology of self.

Sara Josephine Baker MD DrPH (1873 – 1945)

Dr. Baker was an American physician who made significant contributions to the study of child neurology and infantile paralysis. Her work in public health and pediatrics helped reduce infant mortality rates in New York City.

Cecile Mugnier Vogt (1875 – 1962)

Alongside her husband, Oskar Vogt, Cecile Vogt conducted extensive research on brain anatomy and pathology, particularly focusing on the structure of the basal ganglia. Their work laid the foundation for understanding various neurologic disorders and introduced new methods for brain tissue staining, enhancing the study of brain anatomy. Cecile Vogt's contributions were crucial in the early development of neuropathology. She and her husband created the first map of the cortex and the thalamus and pursued some of the most critical anatomic work on brain structures on which the rest of the field relies today. The couple established the Cécile and Oskar Vogt Institute for Brain Research, which still has one of the world’s largest collections of brain samples.(Cécile Vogt).

Dorothy Klenke Nash MD (1898 – 1976)

Dorothy Klenke Nash MD, was the first female neurosurgeon to practice in the United States in 1928 and remained the country's only female neurosurgeon until 1960. A graduate of the prestigious Bryn Mawr College in 1921, Dr. Nash received her medical degree from the Columbia College (NY) of Physicians and Surgeons and received training in both neurology and neurosurgery under the guidance of Byron Stookey at the Neurologic Institute of New York.

Helen Brooke Taussig MD (1898 – 1986)

Dr. Helen Brooke Taussig, an American cardiologist, is renowned for her work in pediatric cardiology and for founding the field of pediatric neurology. Although her primary focus was cardiology, her work had significant implications for neurology, particularly in understanding congenital heart defects and their impact on children's brain development. Taussig's work was instrumental in developing the surgical procedure to treat blue baby syndrome.

Rita Levi-Montalcini MD (1909 – 2012)

Dr. Levi-Montalcini, an Italian neurobiologist, received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1986 for her discovery of nerve growth factor (NGF). Her research on cell growth and cell death had profound implications for neurology, particularly in understanding mechanisms underlying conditions like Alzheimer disease and other neurodegenerative disorders. Levi-Montalcini's work paved the way for research into how the nervous system develops and repairs itself.

Brenda Milner CC GOQ FRS FRSC (b. 1918)

A Canadian neuropsychologist, Milner is renowned for her work with patient H.M., who had profound amnesia. Her studies led to crucial insights into the role of the hippocampus in memory formation and consolidation.

Marian Diamond PhD (1926 – 2017)

Dr. Marian Diamond was an American neuroscientist known for her work on brain development. She was a pioneer in the study of brain plasticity, demonstrating that the brain can change with experience and learning. Diamond's research showed that environmental factors like enrichment can positively impact brain development, challenging previous notions of the brain's rigidity. Her studies on Albert Einstein’s brain helped to deepen the understanding of the relationship between brain anatomy and cognitive function (Marian Diamond Studied the Secrets of Boosting Brain Power).

Isabelle Rapin MD (1927 – 2017)

Dr. Rapin was a Swiss-born American child neurologist who contributed significantly to the understanding of autism and was a pioneer in the study of childhood disintegrative disorder.

Patricia Goldman-Rakic PhD (1937 – 2003)

Dr. Goldman-Rakic was an American neuroscientist noted for her work on the frontal cortex and working memory. Her research has been influential in understanding cognitive functions and their disruptions in neuropsychiatric disorders.

Frances K Conley MD (b. 1940)

Dr. Frances K Conley is an American neurosurgeon who broke barriers as one of the first women to be a board-certified neurosurgeon in the U.S. She has been a strong advocate for gender equality in medicine and has made significant contributions to understanding and treating brain tumors.

Ann Young MD PhD (b. 1941)

Dr. Ann Young is an American neurologist who has made significant contributions to the understanding of Parkinson disease and other movement disorders. Her research has been instrumental in elucidating the molecular mechanisms underlying these conditions, focusing on neurodegeneration and the role of proteolytic enzymes.

Rita Charon MD PhD (b. 1951)

An American physician and narrative medicine scholar, Dr. Charon has made significant contributions to understanding how storytelling and narrative can be integrated into medical practice, including neurology, to improve patient care and empathy.

Susan Hockfield PhD (b. 1951)

Dr. Susan Hockfield, an American neuroscientist, became the first woman to serve as president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Her research has focused on the development of the brain and glioma, a type of brain tumor. Hockfield has been influential in bridging the gap between engineering and neuroscience, fostering interdisciplinary approaches to solving complex neurologic issues.

Anita Harding MD (1952 – 1995)

Dr. Harding was an influential British neurologist renowned for her contributions to the field of neurogenetics. She made significant strides in understanding genetic aspects of neurologic diseases, most notably in her pioneering research on mitochondrial diseases. Harding's work on the genetic basis of diseases like Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease and hereditary spastic paraplegia has been fundamental in shaping current understanding and approaches to these conditions. Her legacy continues to influence the field of neurology, particularly in the areas of genetic counseling and neurogenetic research. She also was the first to associate human disease with mutations in the mitochondrial genome.

Huda Zoghbi MD (b. 1954)

A Lebanese-American physician and geneticist, Dr. Huda Zoghbi's work has had a profound impact on neurology. She discovered the genetic cause of Rett Syndrome, a severe neurologic disorder that mainly affects girls. Her research continues to unravel the mysteries of brain development and neurologic disorders, offering hope for new treatments.

Helen Mayberg MD (b. 1955)

An American neurologist and neuroscientist, Dr. Mayberg's pioneering research has focused on using deep brain stimulation to treat depression. Her work has illuminated the neural circuits involved in mood disorders.

Beth Stevens PhD (b. 1972)

An American neuroscientist, Dr. Stevens made groundbreaking discoveries about microglia, immune cells in the brain, and their role in synaptic pruning and brain development. Her work has implications for understanding neurologic disorders like autism and Alzheimer disease.


These women, among many others, have played a pivotal role in the advancement of neurology. Their contributions have deepened our understanding of the brain, its functions, and the treatment of neurologic conditions, shaping the course of scientific inquiry and patient care.

For further exploration, Wikipedia has a published List of Women Neuroscientists.

Related MedLink Neurology content:
Your career: Confronting the challenges of being a woman in neurology

MedLink acknowledges the use of GPT-4 in drafting this blog entry.

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