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Elizabeth Blackwell, MD
1821 – 1910

Elizabeth Blackwell was born in Bristol, England and came to America with her family in 1832. Her father, Samuel Blackwell, was a social reformer and an entrepreneur. His involvement in the abolition movement left little time for his business ventures which, perforce, did poorly. He died leaving the family destitute.

The family opened a private school in Cincinnati, and Elizabeth, whose early education had been by private tutor, became a teacher. She was initially repulsed by the topic of medicine, and focused her efforts on teaching. Her teaching career carried her to Kentucky and South Carolina.

In Reverend H B Elliott’s 1868 book called Women as Physician, of her decision to investigate medicine as a career, he writes:

An apparently slight occurrence directed her attention to the study of medicine. A female friend, afflicted with a distressing disease, expressed her keen regret that there was no one of her own sex to whom she and other like sufferers could resort for treatment. There were women who had assumed the medical title, but without authority, and with little claim to confidence. Most of them, also, were of disreputable character, and their practice not only unreliable, but largely criminal. [http://womenshistory.about.com/cs/medicine/a/blackwell_emin.htm]

This one paragraph tells the astute reader more about the history of medicine during this period than intended.

For one thing, the “slight occurrence” of her friend’s “distressing disease” is either an historic understatement, or a sizable snub. Her friend lay dying of uterine cancer.

Modesty of the period kept women from discussing their feminine health problems with male physicians who knew little of these disorders while labeling—and treating—every female passage from puberty to child birth to menopause as an illness.  

Next, the paragraph exhibits a strong leaning towards the regulars in medicine, those who had studied the Four Humors and bled, purged, blistered, and poisoned their patients. Obviously the good Reverend lived in a state that had passed licensing regulations allowing only “regulars” to practice and collect fees in courts. Regulars were trained in the best medical schools in the world; medical schools that taught a deadly form of medicine. It mattered little that the women who practiced herbal medicine, hydrotherapy, and midwifery killed far fewer patients than the regulars. What seems important to Reverend Elliott was supporting an elitist system of the regulars.

Elizabeth Blackwell, reading and studying medicine on her own, was about to discover on her own just how elitist the system was. Later in her life, she states: “A blank wall of social and professional antagonism faces the woman physician that forms a situation of singular and painful loneliness, leaving her without support, respect or professional counsel.”

In 1847, the year the American Medical Association was formed, Blackwell began applying to medical schools. Each application was rejected. A few faculty members suggested she disguise herself as a man and apply in Paris where medicine was more progressed than in the US at the time. However, the more she met rejection, the more she grew inspired: “The idea of winning a doctor's degree gradually assumed the aspect of a great moral struggle, and the moral fight possessed immense attraction for me.” Notably, she also admitted much later in life, that she was also seeking a barrier to matrimony.

Finally, one small medical school in upstate New York, Geneva Medical School, put the question to the student body on whether to admit women to their school. Thinking it was a prank, the students (boys will be boys) in a particularly rowdy mood, whooped and hollered, offering up their overwhelming approval.

The first day Blackwell showed up for class, the student body, as well as the townspeople, were in shock. One student noted: “A hush fell over the class as if each member had been stricken by paralysis.” [Brown, Jordan. Elizabeth Blackwell, Physician, New York: Chelsea House, 1989.]

At Geneva, it was an uphill battle. She was barred from some classes (inappropriate for a woman), had few friends, and was snubbed in the town by the genteel ladies. However, because of her brilliance and determination, she gained respect in many of her fellow students, and upon graduation, as an example of the phrase, “nothing succeeds like success,” she found her parlor filled with ladies of the town offering their warmest congratulations.

Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to graduate from an American medical school in January, 1849. She then left for England to continue her studies in the art of medicine, and after that she traveled on to the Mecca of medical studies, Paris. However, it was in Paris where she picked up an eye infection that left her blind in one eye, thus scotching her plans to become a surgeon.

Returning to England to work with Dr James Paget, she met and befriended Florence Nightingale.

Upon her return to America in 1853, she ran up against closed doors, doors she had assumed would now be open to her. Hospitals and clinics refused her, and so she opened her own dispensary in the slums of New York. Her sister, Emily, after completing her medical degree at the same college she’d graduated from, along with a Dr Marie Zakzewska, from Poland, joined in at the dispensary, and in 1857 they incorporated their dispensary and officially became the New York Infirmary for Women and Children.

In 1858, Elizabeth went on a year long lecture throughout Great Britain where she inspired many young women to take up a medical career and she became the first woman to have her name printed on the British Medical Register.

After returning to the US, she resumed her work at her infirmary, but that was soon interrupted by the Civil War. She and her sister helped to organize an association that trained nurses for the war, and inspired the creation of the US Sanitary commission, with which the two sisters worked for a time after the war. In 1868, from an idea she’d developed from her friendship with Florence Nightingale, she and her sister opened a woman’s college at the infirmary. Though the college operated for some thirty years, Elizabeth Blackwell moved back to England the second year of its operation, where she helped to organize the National Healthy Society and later founded the London School of Medicine for Women.

In 1875 she was appointed professor of gynecology, and remained there until 1907 when she had to retire after a serious fall. She passed away in Sussex, England in 1910 not having returned to the US.

References and Further Reading

Elizabeth Blackwell Biography: National Women's Hall of Fame

The Blackwell Women

Ms Elizabeth Blackwell, MD

Elizabeth Blackwell

 

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