Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman awarded a medical degree in the United States, was born February 3, 1821, in Bristol, Gloucestershire, England. Hannah and Samuel Blackwell had nine children, of which Elizabeth was the third. Elizabeth’s father was a highly prosperous sugar refiner and the Blackwell children, even the girls, were privately tutored. In 1831 the family moved to New York City, where Samuel Blackwell established another successful sugar refinery. However, in 1835 a fire destroyed it. The Blackwell family became involved in social reform and the antislavery movement. These beliefs led Samuel Blackwell to start a sugar refinery in Cincinnati, Ohio, using sugar beets. This method did not require the use of slave labor.
Elizabeth’s father died shortly after moving to Cincinnati; the family was left in an impoverished state, and so the older children were forced to find work. Elizabeth and two of her sisters began teaching at a private school that their mother, Hannah, established in their home. Elizabeth then moved to Kentucky to find work, also as a teacher. Life in Kentucky did not suit her. Elizabeth’s strong antislavery beliefs would not allow her to remain living in a slave state, so she moved back to Cincinnati. It was in Cincinnati that Elizabeth made her decision to become a doctor, in spite of inadequate preparation in the sciences and classical languages, and prior medical experience, which many medical schools required.
In 1845 Elizabeth went to South Carolina to teach and arranged to live in a physician’s household, where she received some medical training and the opportunity to study Greek and Latin. During that time, she applied to many colleges, but none accepted her. Finally in 1847 the Geneva College in New York accepted her as a medical student. This really was an accident. The administration allowed the students, at this time all men, to vote as to whether to admit her or not. Thinking that the request was a joke, the students unanimously voted to allow her admittance. Elizabeth was a dedicated student, and graduated first in her class in January 1849.
During her medical studies at Geneva College, Elizabeth worked on a women’s ward at Blockley Almshouse, a charitable hospital in Philadelphia. After graduating, Elizabeth went to Paris to intern at La Maternite, the only hospital that would accept her. It was there that her dreams of becoming a surgeon died. Elizabeth contracted an eye ailment that resulted in the loss of her left eye. However, this did not stop Elizabeth Blackwell from becoming a great doctor.
In 1850, Elizabeth went to England for an internship at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. It was here that she met the famous Florence Nightingale, with whom she became a close and lasting friend. One year later, Elizabeth returned to New York, but found those doors were closed to her; no one wanted to hire a woman doctor. So Elizabeth opened her own clinic. This was not an easy task, as no one wanted to rent to a woman doctor either. In 1853, she finally purchased a small home in Manhattan and opened her own clinic, the New York Dispensary for Poor Women and Children, now the New York Infirmary—Beekman Downtown Hospital. Two other women, her younger sister Emily and a Polish immigrant named Marie Zackrzewska, joined Elizabeth. Both women had attended Western Reserve College in Cincinnati, now known as Case Western Reserve University. This clinic was so successful that in 1857, the three women opened another clinic in Greenwich Village.
Even though Elizabeth was determined not to marry, this did not mean that she could not have a family. In 1854, she adopted a young orphaned girl named Katharine Barry, known as Kitty.
Showing her antislavery sentiments, during the 1860s Blackwell formed an organization called the Women’s Central Association of Relief, a Civil War nursing program. In 1868, Elizabeth, with help from her friend Florence Nightingale, opened the Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary with fifteen students and a faculty of nine, including Elizabeth as
Professor of Hygiene and her sister Emily as Professor of Obstetrics and Diseases of Women. One year later, in 1869, Elizabeth moved to England and her sister Emily continued to run the College and the clinics. In 1875, Elizabeth became a professor of gynecology at the London School of Medicine for Children. She continued to teach there until she retired in 1907. In 1910, Elizabeth Blackwell died of a stroke in Sussex, England.
Not only was Elizabeth Blackwell a successful physician, but she also wrote several books. They include The Laws of Life (1858), The Religion of Health (1871), Counsel to Parents on the Moral Education of Their Children (1878), The Human Element in Sex (1884), Essays in Medical Sociology (1902), and her autobiography, Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women (1895).
SEE ALSO: Discrimination; Jacobi, Mary Putnam; Nightingale, Florence; Nurse, Physician, Women in the Health Professions; Women in Health: Advocates, Reformers and Pioneers
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