Women's Health

7 Trailblazing Women in Rochester Healthcare

Rochester has a long history of innovation and pioneering new ideas. Even within our own healthcare system, many women stand out as being the first or best in their fields. Here are a few of them.

Mar. 24, 2023 7   min read

Illustration of Women's History Month 2023

Since the mid-19th century, Western New York and the Finger Lakes region has been known as a place where women’s rights and female empowerment moves forward and builds a lasting legacy.

Among the many women who paved the way for others to stride forward are those in healthcare – both in the past and in the present day. These are just a few of the many women with a connection to Rochester Regional Health who inspire all of us to do the most we can with the time we are given.

Gwen Williams

Gwen Williams

A stoic presence at Rochester General Hospital for nearly 50 years, Gwen Williams works as a Registered Nurse in the Emergency Department.

Starting her career in 1974, Gwen grew to be a champion of emergency nursing for our community through her dedication and advocacy for both her patients and her fellow nurses. She maintains an impressive number of nursing certifications and serves as an instructor for many nationally recognized courses, including AHA BLS, Emergency Nurses Association Emergency Nursing Pediatric Course, and Health Resources Unlimited Triage Training.

Her leadership on behalf of nurses extends to a number of organizations, including the New York Organization for Nursing Leadership, Sigma Theta Tau, and American Nurses Association. She is a former member of the Monroe Livingston Regional EMS Council and past NYS president, state, and local officer for the Emergency Nurses Association.

Gwen continually works to further the clinical skills and knowledge base of novice and experienced nurses, connecting with her teams and patients as someone who advocates, educates, listens, and cares. This culminated her earning the 2023 Ella Hollister Social Work Award, which honors an outstanding Rochester General Hospital employee who routinely interacts with both patients and colleagues with the highest level of compassion, respect, and fairness.

Dr. Gwen Sterns 

Dr. Gwen Sterns

Dr. Sterns embarked upon her career in ophthalmology at Rochester General Hospital in 1978. Her continued service to the community continued with her appointment as the hospital’s first female Chief of Ophthalmology in 1992.

Under her direction, the Ophthalmology Department at Rochester General Hospital grew into a full-service teaching and treatment eye center that became recognized for superior ophthalmic care and education.

Dr. Stern’s passion for improving people’s vision extended outside of Rochester General with 40 years of service as medical director of Rochester’s Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Her legacy endures through one of ABVI’s flagship programs: The Sterns Center for Low Vision.

Ida Jane Anderson 

Ida Jane Anderson

Ida Jane Anderson carries the distinction of being the first Registered Nurse in New York.

In addition to receiving the title of RN in 1904, Anderson graduated from the Rochester Homeopathic Hospital Training School for Nurses.

Anderson later went on to serve as the night supervisor at the Rochester Homeopathic Hospital, which would later become Genesee Hospital. She was the first graduate nurse to take on the night supervisor role, cementing her status as a forerunner in Rochester’s healthcare history.

Sophia French Palmer 

Sophia French Palmer

A force for medicine both in hospital and education settings, Sophia French Palmer worked her way up to become Superintendent of the Rochester City Hospital and its training school. Rochester City Hospital was later renamed Rochester General Hospital.

As the founding editor of the American Journal of Nursing, there are stories of Palmer editing the journal out of a trunk in her cottage on hospital grounds.

Palmer was very active in the professionalization of nursing at a national level in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Her work helped to orchestrate the framing and passage of the 1903 New York State Nurse Practice Act that established the Registered Nurse in the state, moved supervision of the nursing education under the New York State Board of Regents, and brought consistency to the nursing education curricula being taught at schools across the state.

Mary Keith 

Mary Keith

In the early 20th century, Mary Keith succeeded Sophia French Palmer as Superintendent of Rochester City Hospital. Over the course of her tenure, she became the foremost female hospital administrator in the United States for the time period.

In 1910, Keith oversaw the renovation of the Rochester City Hospital campus, which was funded by a $10 million gift from George Eastman to the hospital. Upon completion, the hospital was renamed Rochester General Hospital.

When Rochester, like many cities around the world, was suffering through the effects of World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic, Keith orchestrated efforts to treat tens of thousands of people across the state – saving lives and bringing healing to returning soldiers to the best of her ability.

Isabella Graham Hart 

Isabella Graham Hart

As the namesake of Rochester Regional Health’s Isabella Graham Hart School of Practical Nursing and Rochester General Hospital’s original Nurses’ Residence campus on West Main Street, Hart is known as an outstanding benefactress who helped to continue Rochester Regional’s mission to provide evidence-based educational programming to interested nursing students.

Hart helped to oversee the operation of Rochester City Hospital as an early member of the hospital’s ‘Board of Lady Managers’ – supervising all aspects of its functions except for medicine. Her persistent support of the hospital’s nurses continues to leave its mark on all who learn nursing through Rochester Regional Health.

The Tiffany stained glass window in the Rochester General Hospital chapel is dedicated to Hart, as well.

Dr. Marion Craig Potter 

Dr. Marion Craig Potter

As the first female physician appointed at Rochester City Hospital, Dr. Potter provided care for poor patients and training for medical graduates by forming the Provident Dispensary for Women and Children.

Dr. Potter earned high praise from her colleagues through her use of the diphtheria vaccine.

Outside of the hospital setting, Dr. Potter was an ardent suffragist who worked with Clara Barton and other women to form the American Red Cross.

“As I walk through the halls of one of our hospitals each day, I am amazed by the number of people in our organization whose mother, sister, or grandmother was a part of the Rochester Regional Health family,” said Jennifer Eslinger, President of Health Care Operations and Chief Operating Officer for Rochester Regional Health. “It is so humbling to serve in an organization whose legacy is not just a thing of the past, but also a vital and flourishing part of our future.”

NEXT STEPS The History of Rochester Regional Health

Formed in 2014 with the joining of Rochester General and Unity Health systems, Rochester Regional Health was built on a foundation of providing inclusive and community-based care that is of the highest quality.

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