Elizabeth Blackwell

#womenshistoryProfilesMarch 17, 2022

The 1870 census counted 137 women enrolled in medical schools, the most ambitious of which was the Medical College for Women in New York City, founded by Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in America to graduate with a medical degree.

Born in England, Blackwell moved with her family to America when she was 11. She worked as a teacher in her youth; medicine was not her natural inclination. In her 1895 book Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women Blackwell admitted that in her younger years, she “hated everything connected with the body” and “could not bear the sight of a medical book.” But two episodes in her life changed her mind. 

First, family friend Mary Donaldson, who was dying of what was likely uterine cancer, confided to Blackwell that she would have been spared her worst suffering had she had a female physician. Blackwell believed had a female physician been available, Donaldson might have sought treatment in time to save her life. Second, while working as a teacher, Blackwell boarded with the families of two physicians who mentored her, and she immersed herself in their medical books for a year.

Getting into medical school, however, was no easy task; there were few colleges and none that accepted women. Just a year prior, Dr. Harriot Hunt had been denied admission to Harvard’s medical school.

Rejected everywhere she applied, Blackwell was finally admitted to Geneva Medical College in New York, but apparently as a practical joke. The faculty, believing the all-male student body would reject her, put Blackwell’s admission to a vote, and, as a joke, they voted yes.

College life was equally fraught. Professors forced her to sit separately at lectures and often excluded her from labs; townspeople branded her a “bad” woman. But Blackwell persevered and graduated first in her class, becoming the first woman in America to earn a medical degree. 

Blackwell continued her training at London and Paris hospitals, studying midwifery at La Maternité, where she contracted “purulent ophthalmia” from a young patient, leading to her losing sight in her left eye.

In 1851 she returned to New York City, where she opened a small clinic to treat poor women, and six years later the New York Infirmary for Women and Children with Dr. Marie Zakrzewska and her sister, Dr. Emily Blackwell who graduated from Cleveland Medical College after being rejected from several schools, including Geneva College, which shut its doors to women following Blackwell’s graduation. 

The infirmary trained nurses for Union hospitals during the Civil War and in 1868 became a medical college, with a curriculum that included the first course in hygiene in the country, something Blackwell had championed for years since realizing that some epidemics were caused by doctors failing to wash their hands between patients.

A year later, Blackwell left the college in the care of her sister and returned to England where she campaigned for the inclusion of women in the medical field. In England she founded the National Health Society to educate the public about the benefits of hygiene and in 1874 joined with other female physicians to establish the London School of Medicine for Women, where she taught gynecology.

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