Elizabeth Blackwell, 1821-1910

  • Elizabeth-Blackwell-WWP

Woman Category: HealthWoman Tags: NYC Women and Physician

  • HerStory

    Anglo-American physician and public health activist. The first woman to receive a medical degree in the US and the first woman to enter the British General Medical Council’s medical register.

    Elizabeth Blackwell was born in Bristol, England, into a prosperous liberal Congregationalist family. In her early childhood, she was educated by private tutors and absorbed the ideas of women’s rights and abolitionism. The family’s progressive views and the loss of her father’s sugar refinery led them to move to the US. They arrived in NYC when she was 11 years old and settled in Cincinnati, Ohio. When she was 17 years old, her father died, and the family struggled financially. To earn money, Blackwell and two of her sisters opened a private school for girls and later taught in numerous schools around the country. At the time, she made up her mind to become a physician, saving money for medical school. While teaching in a boarding school in Charleston, South Carolina, she lodged at a Reverend and former physician who supported her aspirations and allowed her to use his medical books.
    At 25, Blackwell moved to Philadelphia, independently studying anatomy and applying to medical schools, getting rejected multiple times because of her gender. In 1847, she was finally accepted to Geneva Medical College. During the summer vacations, she trained at Blockley Almshouse hospital in Philadelphia, ignoring the hostile attitude from some of the resident physicians.
    In January 1849, Blackwell graduated medical school, first in her class, becoming the first woman to achieve a medical degree in the US. At her degree conferral, the dean stood up and bowed to her. She took off to Europe, wishing to continue her studies, but she was denied by medical institutes once again. When she was confirmed to enroll in the La Maternité in Paris, it was under the condition that she would be treated as a student midwife. In 1849, Blackwell treated an infant with an infectious eye disease and contracted the disease herself. She lost her left eyesight and her dream of becoming a surgeon. After facing a hostile attitude in St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, she returned to the US.
    On her arrival to NYC, Blackwell was unable to receive a post in any hospital, so she tried to establish her practice. With almost no patients, she channeled her efforts into writing and lecturing. She taught classes for young women on sexual physiology and reproduction, gave speeches, and published a volume about the physical and mental development of girls, titled The Laws of Life with Special Reference to the Physical Education of Girls. In 1853, Blackwell founded a small dispensary, and four years later, with her sister, Emily (the third woman to earn a medical degree in the US) and Marie Zakrzewska, they expanded the dispensary and renamed it – the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. There, women obtained all roles –from physicians to board members and of the executive committee.
    In 1861, At the outbreak of the American Civil War, Blackwell was a key figure in the organization of the Woman’s Central Association of Relief and the US Sanitary Commission and trained nurses for the Union hospitals. In 1868, she opened the Woman’s Medical College at her NYC infirmary, where she set a four-year training period that included extensive academic and clinical training. Blackwell served as Professor of Hygiene, and her sister Emily as Professor of Obstetrics and Diseases of Women.
    In the following year, she left to live in London, this time for good, establishing a successful private practice there. A year later, at the age of 49, she became ill and could not practice medicine, but remained active in developing of public health, co-founding the National Health Society and establishing the London School of Medicine for Women, where she served as a professor of gynecology. She retired at 86 because of the mental and physical difficulties she suffered from after falling off stairs. She passed away three years later due to a stroke.

    “My whole life is devoted unreservedly to the service of my sex. The study and practice of medicine is in my thought but one means to a great end…the true ennoblement of woman.”

    “My whole life is devoted unreservedly to the service of my sex. The study and practice of medicine is in my thought but one means to a great end…the true ennoblement of woman.”


    More Interesting Anecdotes:

    • She turned to medicine after a close friend who was dying said that she would have been spared her suffering if she was treated by a “lady doctor.”
    • She established a slave Sunday school.
    • Her acceptation to Geneva Medical College was dependent on a vote by the 150 male students, with the stipulation that if one student objected, she would be turned away. The vote for her admission was unanimous.
    • She was Elizabeth Garrett Anderson’s mentor – the first woman qualify in Britain as a physician and surgeon.
    • She opposed the use of vivisections – surgery conducted for experimental purposes on living animals.
    • During the 1880’s she contributed to the founding of two utopian communities – Starnthwaite and Hadleigh in the 1880s.
    • Ahead of her time, she argued that women’s sexual passions are equal to those of men and that men and women were equally responsible for controlling those passions. The book in which she expressed her views rejected by 12 publishers before it was printed.
    • She was a close friend of Florence Nightingale.
    • In 1856 she adopted an Irish orphan named Katherine “Kitty” Barry.
    • She never got married.
    • She published more than 15 essays and books, including an autobiography Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women.
    • She was active in various reform movements, including women’s rights, moral reform, sexual purity, hygiene, medical education, and Christian socialism.
    • The Elizabeth Blackwell Medal given by the American Medical Women’s Association is named in her honor.
    • Judy Chicago’s art installation “The Dinner Party,” features a place setting for her.
    • The Elizabeth Blackwell Institute for Health Research of the University of Bristol is named in her honor.
    • Google honored her as a doodle for her 197th birth anniversary.
    • A statue of her is located at Hobart and William Smith Colleges campus.
  • More About Her Legacy

    * Inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame (1973)

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  • Woman Tags: NYC Women, Physician

    Meet the country’s first female doctor: Elizabeth Blackwell

    How the nation's first female doctor changed the face of medical care. Read more about Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell https://healthmatters.nyp.org/happened-dr-elizabeth-blackwell/

  • Photo credit - Shutterstock

  • Citations and Additional References:
    Health Matters website.
    Wikipedia page.