IN Puerto Madero, the most exclusive neighbourhood in Buenos Aires, there is a small street named after Cecilia Grierson. Small buildings and institutions also bear her name.

For many Argentines, her story is reduced to a title: “The first woman doctor in Argentina”. But Cecilia Grierson’s life was more complex and encompassed other disciplines beyond health. She was a woman who fought for a lifetime and became indispensable to a whole country.

The daughter of an Irish mother and a Scottish father, Grierson was born in Buenos Aires in 1859. Soon afterwards, the family moved first to Colonia Monte Grande on the outskirts of city, then to the province of Entre Rios and the neighbouring country of Uruguay.

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Her childhood was peaceful and spent among the family’s books until the Griersons’s business worsened. That hardship awakened the spirit of a woman who began to display her talent and tenacity.

“When she was six years old, she was sent to study in English and French schools in Buenos Aires,” says the writer Eduardo Cormick in his book The Irish side of the Argentines. “When she was still a child, she convinced her mother to establish a school in her house in the countryside.”

That is how, before becoming a doctor, she became a teacher. When she was only 15 years old, Grierson entered the First Normal School for Girls in Buenos Aires and graduated as a teacher four years later. Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, considered the father of modern education in Argentina, gave her first position at the head of a classroom in a boys’ school in 1879.

Deeply grieved by the death of a friend due to lung disease, Grierson then decided she wanted to become a doctor. She applied to enter the University of Buenos Aires School of Medicine, which at that time had only male students and professors.

Although no explicit prohibition prevented her from entering, there was a trap. In the past, Latin was a requirement for specific careers. Moreover, it was only taught at certain institutions, such as the Colegio Nacional Buenos Aires, which did not admit women at the time. However, Grierson finally was admitted and graduated on July 2, 1889.

This was not the only revolutionary event in Grierson’s life. She dedicated it to fighting against the canons imposed by a society that assigned some tasks only to men.

Years later, she applied as a substitute professor for the Chair of Obstetrics for Midwives. She did not get the role and wrote: “It was because I am a woman, according to what listeners and one of the members of the examining board said, that the jury gave in this competition a strange and unique decision – not to grant the professorship to my competitor or me. The reasons and arguments put forward on that occasion would fill a chapter against feminism.”

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Grierson instead founded the School of Nurses and Massage Therapists, the first of its kind in the country to be public, free and secular.

Her feminist ideology went far beyond her work in education and public health, according to writer and nursing graduate Beatriz Morrone, who wrote the book Cecilia Grierson: I Am A Worker of Thought. Morrone wrote: “She is present in many feminist struggles and is part of that first great wave of female fighters from 1880 onwards, although, paradoxically, today’s feminism does not rescue her too much.

“She was a teacher, sculptor, activist for educational spaces, founder of the School of Nursing, philanthropist and a great participant in the debate on public policies.

“She did not recognise limits in her profession and broke new ground with great courage. She was fundamental in creating specialities that did not exist in Argentina, such as gynaecology, obstetrics and neonatology. She was also key in other areas, such as the education of the blind and mental health issues”.

So influential was Grierson that she was elected president of the First International Women’s Congress as one of the pioneers and fighters for equal rights. “Her thinking applies to current issues: feminism, health, the humanisation of care and the sovereignty of the body. She was a transdisciplinary character,” Morrone said.

Grierson died in 1934. She left a legacy that continues to live on and the motto with which she always identified: “Deeds. Not words.”