Who Was Elizabeth Blackwell?
Elizabeth Blackwell was a British physician and the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States. As a girl, she moved with her family to the United States, where she first worked as a teacher. Despite widespread opposition, she later decided to attend medical college and graduated first in her class. She created a medical school for women in the late 1860s, eventually returning to England and setting up a private practice.
Background and Education
Physician and educator Blackwell was born on February 3, 1821, in Bristol, England. Brought up in a liberal household that stressed education, Blackwell eventually broke into the field of medicine to become the first woman to graduate from medical school in the United States.
In 1832, Blackwell and her family moved to the United States, first settling in New York and later moving to Cincinnati, Ohio. After her father’s death in 1838, Blackwell (who was versed in French and German), her mother and two older sisters all worked as educators to make ends meet.
While in her mid-20s, Blackwell had a friend suffering from a terminal disease who had felt embarrassed going to male doctors, lamenting that she would have fared better having a female physician. Deeply affected by her friend's words and struggling with an affair of the heart as well, Blackwell opted to pursue a career in medicine. But the road to becoming a doctor was not an easy one. As some other women did at the time, she studied independently with doctors before getting accepted in 1847 to Geneva Medical College in upstate New York. Her acceptance was deemed by the student body as an administrative practical joke.
Yet a serious Blackwell showed up to pursue her studies, with her admittance creating community uproar due to the prejudices of the time over women receiving a formal education in medicine. She was ostracized by educators and patients alike at times, though it was also reported that uncouth male students became particularly studious and mature in her presence. Blackwell held firm despite myriad challenges, earning the respect of many of her peers and eventually writing her doctoral thesis on typhus fever. Ranked first in her class, Blackwell graduated in 1849, becoming the first woman to become a doctor of medicine in the contemporary era.
Medical Establishments in New York
Blackwell returned to Europe and worked in London and Paris. She focused on midwifery at La Maternité, where she contracted a disease during a procedure on an infant that left her blind in one eye; she was thus unable to practice surgery as she had wished. Blackwell later returned to New York City and established a private practice, at first struggling financially again due to the prejudices of the day.
In the mid-1850s, she opened a clinic that became known as the New York Dispensary for Poor Women and Children. With help from her sister and fellow doctor Emily Blackwell, who worked as a surgeon, and physician Marie Zakrzewska, Blackwell also established the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children in 1857, an institution that would last for more than a century. At the end of the decade, while lecturing in England, she became the first woman listed on the British Medical Register.
Having maintained that clean sanitary conditions were an important aspect of health, especially in war, Blackwell helped establish the U.S. Sanitary Commission in 1861 under the auspices of President Abraham Lincoln. In the late 1860s, Blackwell opened a medical school for women. The students of the Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary thus had a comprehensive, highly structured and competitive curriculum. One of the school’s students for a brief time was Sophia Jex-Blake, who would later open a medical school for women in London.
Soon after establishing the college, Blackwell returned to England. She set up a private practice and served as a lecturer at the London School of Medicine for Women. She eventually moved to Hastings, England.
Elizabeth Blackwell died at her home there on May 31, 1910. A grand visionary who created opportunities for female physicians of the future, Blackwell published several books over the course of her career, including her 1895 autobiography Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women.
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