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Elizabeth Blackwell, M.D. (1821-1910) – America’s First Woman Physician
Introduction: At the age of 24, Elizabeth Blackwell had a revelation that changed her life, taking her far from her tiny Cincinnati schoolroom where she was teaching. She had gone to see Mary Donaldson, a family friend dying of what was probably uterine cancer. “My friend,” Blackwell later recalled, “died of a painful disease, the delicate nature of which made the methods of treatment a constant suffering to her.” A “lady doctor,” Donaldson told her young visitor, would have spared her the embarrassment of having male physicians examine her. Indeed, Blackwell believed, had a female physician been available, Donaldson might have sought treatment in time to save her life. For the idealistic Blackwell, moved by her friend’s plight, the idea of becoming a doctor “gradually assumed the aspect of a great moral struggle.”
A great moral struggle was unavoidable, since in mid-nineteenth-century America, a “lady doctor” was a radical idea. Conventional opinion then held that, if a woman studied medicine, her morals would suffer from learning the details of anatomy and of the body’s reproductive system. In 1850, the student body of Harvard Medical College famously barred Harriot K. Hunt of Boston from entering the school. “No woman of true delicacy,” the students resolved, would want to study medicine.(1) Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in America to receive her medical degree. She served as a pioneer for women in the medical profession and promoted the education of women in the medical profession through lectures and by opening her own medical college for women.
Early History: Elizabeth Blackwell was born in Counterslip, England on February 3, 1821. She was the third of nine children born to Hannah Lane and Samuel Blackwell, who was a sugar refiner. Samuel Blackwell was well known in England for social activism, including advocating the abolition of slavery and church reform. In 1832, the Blackwell family moved to America, eventually ending up in Cincinnati, Ohio. The family also included Samuel Blackwell’s four unmarried sisters who lived with them. Samuel Blackwell was a very forward thinking man and raised all of his children with feminist ideals. His daughter Emily Blackwell followed in her sister’s footsteps and received a medical degree. Henry Blackwell was a well-known abolitionist and also worked for woman suffrage. Henry eventually married Lucy Stone, who played a prominent role in the women’s movement. In their vows, the couple removed any suggestions of wifely obedience, and Lucy Stone retained her maiden name. Another of the Blackwell children, Samuel, married Antoinette Brown; as Antoinette Brown Blackwell, she became the first ordained female minister in a mainstream Protestant denomination.
Career: Soon after the family settled in Cincinnati, Samuel Blackwell died, leaving the family penniless during the financial crisis of 1837. Elizabeth, her mother, and two older sisters all worked as teachers to earn money for the family. In 1842, Blackwell moved to Kentucky for a new teaching position. During this time, she realized that there were not many career opportunities for women other than that of a teacher, which typically ended in marriage. She decided to become a credentialed doctor, even though there were no precedents for female students in medical schools. Such schools were themselves fairly new, as most physicians learned to practice medicine literally by “practicing” with an experienced doctor. Some women, too, apprenticed with such mentors and became accepted, albeit unlicensed, physicians. Perhaps the most famous of these was Harriot K. Hunt of Boston, whose reputation was so good that she earned thousands of dollars annually in the 1840s.
Blackwell did not know of Hunt and other women, however, and her English education had not given her the skills or training necessary to get into medical school. While she was teaching, however, she boarded with the families of two physicians, one in Asheville, North Carolina and another in the presumed heart of conservatism, Charleston, South Carolina. Both men mentored her, and when she was not teaching, Blackwell read medical books. Still, many people were skeptical about whether she would be able to get into medical school. She returned north to Philadelphia in 1847, where she hoped that Quaker friends could help her – but every school in that city, New York, and New England refused her application – until Geneva College, a small school in rural New York, sent a letter of acceptance.
People there were surprised when Blackwell actually showed up, and they were not at all welcoming; the acceptance letter was intended as a practical joke. Professors forced her to sit separately at lectures, and she was often excluded from labs. Blackwell, however, did not give up and eventually earned the respect of many professors and fellow students. Between her two years at medical college, Blackwell spent the summer at Blockley Almshouse in Philadelphia where she was given permission to observe the patients and physicians. The physicians, however, did not want her there and were not helpful. In her time at Blockley, she observed the city’s poorest patients, many of whom were suffering from typhus. She wrote her thesis on that disease, which is preventable with proper sanitation.
In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell graduated first in her class and became the first woman in the world to receive a medical degree. Her brother Henry attended her graduation and wrote back to all of their relatives about the triumphant event. He reported how the president had honored his “sis.” with her diploma and of how after she had received it the audience all applauded. He wrote:
“After a short discourse by Dr. Hale the President – the diplomas were conferred – 4 being called at a time – and ascending the steps to the platform the President addressed them in a Latin formula – taking off his hat, but remaining seated – & so handed them their diplomas, which they received with a bow & retired. Eliz. was left to the last & called up alone – the President taking off his hat, rose & addressing her in the same formula – substituting Domina for Domine, presented her the diploma – whereupon our Sis, who had walked up & stood before him with much dignity bowed & half turned to retire but suddenly turning back replied Sir I thank you – by the help of the Most High, it shall be the effort of my life to shed honour upon your diploma – whereupon she bowed & the President bowed – the audience gave manifestations of applause – little Dr. Webster rubbed his hands – the learned curators & faculty nodded grave approbation at each other upon the platform & our Sis, descending the steps took her seat with her fellow-physicians in front ….”
Upon receiving her degree, Blackwell continued her training at several hospitals in London and Paris. Europe was even further behind in acceptance of female education, however, and most doctors were still not willing to accept her; they often ignored her or treated her with hostility. Dr. Blackwell found herself relegated to the area of midwifery and often spent her time with nurses. Through her work with nurses, she developed a strong emphasis on preventative care and personal hygiene. Most male physicians had no such focus – indeed, they caused epidemics by failing to wash their hands between patients.
In 1851, Dr. Blackwell returned to America. In New York City, she met with resistance. She was not allowed to practice in any of the hospitals or clinics and even had a hard time renting rooms. Many people thought of a female physician as an abortionist and could not accept her as a female physician who treated the same problems as any male physician. Finally, with some help from Quaker friends, Blackwell opened a small clinic where she treated poor women. By 1857, she was able to open a hospital, the New York Infirmary for Women and Children with her sister, Dr. Emily Blackwell, and Dr. Marie Zakrzewska. Their good reputations gained the support of many prominent citizens and physicians who joined the board of trustees. The hospital provided care to the poor and also provided positions for women physicians.
Soon after her return to the U.S., Elizabeth opened a free dispensary to provide out-patient treatment to poor women and children, but it was open only a few hours a week and its services were limited. In 1857, she closed the dispensary and opened the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, a full-scale hospital with beds for medical and surgical patients. It’s purpose was not only to serve the poor, but also to provide positions for women physicians and a training facility for female medical and nursing students. The medical staff at first consisted of Elizabeth and two of her protégés, her sister Emily and Marie Zakrzewska. This institution still exists as the New York University Downtown Hospital.
Elizabeth believed that women should receive their medical education alongside men in the established medical schools. She was not sympathetic to the women’s medical schools that had opened in Boston, Philadelphia and New York in the 1850s. However, since the women trained in her Infirmary were not able to gain admission to the male medical colleges, she was persuaded to establish her own women’s medical college.
The Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary opened its doors in 1868, with fifteen students and a faculty of nine, including Elizabeth, as Professor of Hygiene, and her younger sister Emily as Professor of Obstetrics and Diseases of Women. The year after the College’s opening, Elizabeth left for England, leaving the College under Emily’s directorship. (2)
A year later, Elizabeth Blackwell traveled to England, and the following year, Dr. Zakrzewska moved to Boston to head the New England Hospital for Women and Children. Emily Blackwell took over management of the hospital; she always had done its surgery because of Elizabeth Blackwell’s poor eyesight. The latter returned to the U.S. just before the Civil War began, but the skills of the Blackwell sisters were seriously underutilized during the war. Although ardent abolitionists, they stayed in New York; their role was limited to training nurses for Union hospitals.
Blackwell’s 1849 graduation had been well publicized by the women’s rights movement, and more women quickly emulated her than generally is known. Lydia
Folger Fowler, a happily married woman, graduated from a traditionally male college in Rochester in 1851; in the same year, two women graduated from the nation’s first medical school for women, a still-extant Philadelphia institution begun by Quakers in 1850. This school and Zakrzewska’s Boston school thus were successfully educating female physicians when, in 1868, Elizabeth Blackwell finally fulfilled her dream of opening her own in New York City. Because she was the object of worldwide attention, she emphasized strict entrance exams, a sound curriculum, and graduate exams. The education her students received was better than that of most of the medical colleges for men.
Just a year after the college’s opening, however, Elizabeth Blackwell again left the institution for her sister to manage, while she returned permanently to England. There, she built a successful London practice and, in 1875, became a professor of gynecology at the new London School of Medicine for Women. She also helped found the National Health Society and published several books; her autobiography, which reads like a novel, has the rather dull title of Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women (1895).
Dr. Emily Blackwell built the New York institution, now called New York Downtown Hospital, into a continuing success. Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell died in Hastings, England, in 1910. Although she was born and died in England, as both a student and a professor, she was a true pioneer of American education.
(1): New York’s First “Lady Doctor” City Journal, 2000 city-journal.org http://www.city-journal.org/html/10_1_urbanities-new_yorks_firs.html
(2): “That Girl There Is Doctor In Medicine” – U.S. National Library of Medicine: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/blackwell/career.html
National Women’s History Museum: http://www.nwhm.org/education-resources/biography/biographies/elizabeth-blackwell/ (Accessed: June 12, 2015)
National Library of Medicine: Changing the Face of Medicine: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/changingthefaceofmedicine/physicians/biography_35.html (Accessed: June 12, 2015)
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Social Welfare History Project. (2015). Elizabeth Blackwell, M.D. (1821-1910) – America’s first woman physician. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from http://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/programs/health-nutrition/blackwell-elizabeth-1821-1910/