First American Woman Physician of Modern Times
Blackwell was born on February 3, 1821, in Bristol, England, to parents whose progressive social and political views shaped her later devotion to social reform. Blackwell and her 11 siblings were educated at home by private tutors. In 1832, her family immigrated to the United States, lived for six years in New York and New Jersey, and then moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. For four years, Blackwell and her sisters ran a boarding school and taught private pupils. In 1842, Blackwell accepted a teaching position at a girls’ school in Kentucky, but the work did not appeal to her, and in 1844 she decided to become a medical doctor.
Blackwell’s first attempts to gain admission to medical school were unsuccessful. Then, finally, she was accepted at Geneva College in New York. Her acceptance was the result of an accident: admissions authorities at Geneva College thought her application was a hoax from a rival school and decided to accept the application in good humor. When Blackwell arrived, the school honored its invitation. She graduated in 1849 at the top of her class. For the following two years, she trained in Europe.
From 1851 to 1853, Blackwell was blocked from practicing medicine in New York City because of her sex. She gave lectures on hygiene and developed a base of friends and professional connections. In 1853, she opened a dispensary, which in 1868 became the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, the first institution to have an entirely female medical staff. Blackwell developed a more holistic approach to medicine than was typical in her day: she emphasized prevention and the nurturing role of physicians in maintaining a patient’s good health. She continued to lecture, both in the U.S. and Europe, advocating the cause of women in medicine. In 1869, Blackwell left the infirmary’s operation to her sister Emily, also a physician, moved to England, and ran a flourishing medical practice.
Blackwell died on May 31, 1910, in Hastings, England.
Elizabeth Blackwell’s Legacy
Blackwell is a central figure in the history of women in medicine. During the early Renaissance in Europe, women were generally barred from medical training. In the sixteenth century the study of obstetrics was developing, and some women entered the field; Louise Bourgeois, a pupil of the influential physician AMBROISE PARÉ, was among the most prominent. In 1754, the first German female physician earned her degree, prompting public expressions of shock and outrage at the idea of a woman practicing medicine. This attitude was pervasive in Western society when Blackwell applied to medical schools nearly a century later. Blackwell’s determined entrance into the medical profession marked the beginning of a change in people’s opinions about women’s abilities.
Blackwell’s work also influenced public health. Her lectures on hygiene prompted people to maintain living conditions that inhibited the spread of disease. Her dispensary and infirmary provided much needed medical attention to the destitute women and children of New York City. The infirmary became a model for other such humanitarian medical facilities.
Blackwell spoke out in favor of women’s medical education, inspiring and encouraging many women to pursue medicine as a career. As women demanded admittance to medical schools, the doors began to open. Most western European countries graduated their first female physician between 1860 and 1900. In the United States, nearly 10% of students at 18 major medical schools were women by the turn of the century.
Elizabeth Blackwell – 1821-1910