During the time when many young women were denied even a high school education, Elizabeth Blackwell was not only the first openly female candidate accepted into a medical school, but the first woman to graduate in the United States with a medical degree. Having been raised by parents who themselves stood against the traditions of their era, Blackwell followed in their footsteps, daring to do what had not yet been done.
Elizabeth Blackwell Early Years
Blackwell was born February 13, 1821 in Bristol, England to parents Hannah and Samuel. Elizabeth and her sisters were denied public schooling in England because Samuel Blackwell went against the authority of the church. Her father arranged private tutoring for his daughters, who were taught the same curriculum as boys. Hannah Blackwell brought music and literature into the young girls’ lives.
Between the ages of 10 to 12, Elizabeth Blackwell’s family moved to New York City, partially due to financial reasons and partially because Samuel sought to join the movement to abolish slavery. The family lived there until 1837, when the most of the wealth Samuel had accumulated from a sugar refinery he had established was lost during a downturn in the economy.
Cincinnati, Ohio was the family’s next home. Shortly after the move to Ohio, Samuel Blackwell died, leaving the family without a means to support itself. The three oldest sisters, including Elizabeth supported the family by establishing and running a boarding school for young women.
The Call of Medicine
Blackwell accepted a teaching position in Henderson, Kentucky in 1842, but returned to Cincinnati at the end of the school year. When she returned, a friend of hers who had had treatment for a gynecological disorder told Blackwell that had her physician been a woman, she would have been spared much embarrassment. The friend encouraged Blackwell to study medicine.
In a book penned by Blackwell in 1895, she admitted that initially she had no interest in medicine and was, in fact, repelled by everything connected with the body. Her preferred areas of study were metaphysics and history. The influence of her dying friend must have been substantial to cause Blackwell to change her mind.
Blackwell applied to several different medical schools in the New England area and was rejected by each of them. Finally, she made application and was accepted at Geneva Medical College in New York in 1847.
Her acceptance there, she later found out, was something of a practical joke. The school’s administration took her application to the student body–which was all male–to vote on whether to accept her into the program or not. The majority of the students voted “yes” and her academic path was created.
Two years later she became the first woman to graduate from medical school in the United States–at least the first woman who attended medical school as a female.
After graduation from medical school, Blackwell went to La Maternite’ Hospital to further her studies and gain practical experience. There she studied midwifery and worked in clinics in both London and Paris.
Elizabeth Blackwell’s Medical Career
Blackwell’s first ambition was to become a surgeon, but an eye infection she contracted left her blind in one eye. She returned to New York City in 1851, but was unable to find employment as a physician because she was a woman.
Undaunted, Blackwell opened her own practice, but had few patients and even fewer fellow physicians with whom to interact. In 1853 Blackwell opened her own dispensary (office) in a single rented room.
In 1854, the dispensary became incorporated and moved to a small house in the city that Blackwell had purchased.
In 1856, Blackwel was joined by her sister, Dr. Emily Blackwell and another female physician, Dr. Marie Zakrzewska. In 1857 the three women established the New York Infirmary for Women and Children on Bleecker Street which provided care for the poor.
Ten years later, a medical college for women opened at the Bleecker Street address.
1869 found Blackwell in London where she established a practice.
Due to failing health, Blackwell retired from the practice of medicine in the late 1870’s, but became a professor of gynecology at the London School of Medicine for Women from 1875 through 1907.
Sources: National Library of Medicine
Encyclopedia of World Biography