It’s Women’s History Month! Each Wednesday this March, we are honoring remarkable women throughout history who made their mark in the healthcare field and beyond by highlighting their accomplishments and their stories. 

Mary Calderone was born in New York City in 1904, but moved to France soon after her birth where she lived for many years until the start of WWI. After fleeing back to New York, she was sent to live with family friend Dr. Leopold Stieglitz, who inspired her to pursue medicine. In 1939, Calderone received her M.D. from the University of Rochester and, later, her MPH from Columbia.

Whilst working as a physician in the Great Neck public school system from 1949-1953, Calderone recognized that a lack of sexual education and access to birth control was leading to a large amount of unintended pregnancies and the spread of STIs. This lead her to become the first female Medical Director of Planned Parenthood in 1953, embracing new ideas on human sexuality and leading the movement to separate sex from reproductive, instead promoting sex as a healthy and normal part of life. 

In 1955, Calderone convened a national conference called Abortion in the United States, the first instance of physicians and other professionals advocating for the decriminalization of abortion, later winning the endorsement of the American Public Health Association (APHA), the first large professional organization to issue a public statement endorsing family planning as part of ordinary medical care.

Image of oral contraceptive, first legalized in 1960

In 1960, when the FDA approved the first oral contraceptive, she lobbied the American Medical Association (AMA) to endorse birth control as part of standard medical practice and a few years later successfully overturned the AMA’s policy against the dissemination of birth control information to patients. That same year in 1964, she left Planned Parenthood to found the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), the first and only single issue, national advocacy group dedicated to promoting sex education.

Calderone poses with philanthropist Brooke Astor, actress Julie Harris, and Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, all recipients of the Spirit of Achievement Award.

Calderone soon became a household name and was featured in magazines such as Seventeen, Life, Parade, Playboy, and on TV shows such as Sixty Minutes. In her later years, she continued to be a frequent and popular lecturer and was the recipient of numerous professional and humanitarian awards until her death in 1998.