Elizabeth Blackwell

Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910)

Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) was an English physician

In 1849, Blackwell became the first woman to graduate from medical school in the United States (and the first female medical graduate in the English speaking world). She was the second female physician on the Medical Register of the UK General Medical Council (after Elizabeth Garrett Anderson).

Blackwell co-founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children and campaigned for women’s rights and strong supporter of the anti-slavery movement

My whole life is devoted unreservedly to the service of my sex. The study and practice of medicine is in my thought but one means to a great end…the true ennoblement of woman.

Blackwell 1848

Biography

Early life

  • Elizabeth was born on 3 February 1821 in Bristol, England, one of nine children.
  • Her father Samuel was a successful sugar refiner and Elizabeth’s early childhood was comfortable.
  • Samuel exposed his children to controversial views, including advocating equal education for women and the abolition of slavery.
  • In 1832 he moved the family to America. He died a few years later leaving little fortune behind him.
  • Aged 17, Elizabeth opened a small school with two sisters to earn money for the family. The sisters ran the school for four years.
  • Elizabeth visited a female friend dying of a malignancy who said her suffering would have been reduced if she had a female doctor. Elizabeth decided to study medicine, although 150 years ago the notion of women pursuing this career was unthinkable.

Medical school

  • Elizabeth spent a year living and studying with two physician friends, whilst still teaching to secure money for her upcoming education.
  • Elizabeth applied to every medical school in New York and Philadelphia, met with ridicule and discouragement.
  • She was finally accepted at Geneva University, New York in 1847.
  • During the summer she worked at Blockley Almshouse of Philadelphia where she gained valuable medical experience and wrote a thesis on typhus.
  • She graduated in 1849, the first British woman to receive a medical degree.

Early working life

  • After graduating Elizabeth spent two years in Europe, working in Paris and London.
  • She was initially met again with rejection, so enrolled as a student nurse at the Maternity Hospital in Paris, to gain practical experience.
  • In 1849 Blackwell had a career-changing accident. She contracted an eye infection (purulent ophthalmia) whilst treating an infant and lost the sight in her eye.
  • A few months late she had to have the eye surgically removed, ending her ambitions for a career in surgery.
  • Elizabeth returned to New York in 1851 and opened a dispensing practice with one of her sisters.
  • Initially, few patients attended. Elizabeth described it as “a blank wall of social and professional antagonism”.
  • Instead, Elizabeth turned to the promotion of hygiene and preventative medicine; and the promotion of medical education and opportunities for female physicians.

Achievements in work and education

  • In 1857, along with her sister Emily, Elizabeth co-founded the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. This grew and later became New York University Downtown Hospital.
  • In 1859 Elizabeth visited England again, where she lectured about medicine as a profession for women. Among her audience was Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who shortly afterwards decided to pursue a career in medicine.
  • Just before returning to America, Elizabeth Blackwell had her name inscribed on the British Medical Register.
  • Elizabeth went on to establish the Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary with her colleagues. In 1868 fifteen students enrolled, with a faculty of nine including Elizabeth as Professor of Hygiene, and her younger sister Emily as Professor of Obstetrics and Diseases of Women.
  • Elizabeth also lectured in gynaecology at the London School of Medicine for Women, and held a position on the consulting staff of the New Hospital for Women.

Later life

  • In her retirement, Elizabeth remained an active speaker and writer.
  • When her Women’s Medical College in New York burnt down in the late 19th century, it did not have to be rebuilt, since the Cornell Medical School had opened its doors to women on equal terms with men.
  • Elizabeth died on 31 May 1910 in Hastings, Sussex.

Medical Eponyms
  • National Women Physicians Day – February 3rd – This day marks the birthday of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States in 1849. Dr. Blackwell initiated the movement that helped women gain entry and equality in the field of medicine.
  • Elizabeth Blackwell Medal – awarded annually since 1949 by the American Medical Women’s Association to a woman physician “who has made the most outstanding contributions to the cause of women in the field of medicine.

Notable Quotables

If the present arrangements of society will not admit of woman’s free development, then society must be remodeled, and adapted to the great wants of all humanity. Our race is one, the interests of all are inseparably united, and harmonic freedom for the perfect growth of every human soul is the great want of our time.

Blackwell 1848

..the suggestion of studying medicine was first presented to me by a lady friend. This friend finally died of a painful disease, the delicate nature of which made the methods of treatment a constant suffering to her. She once said to me: “You are fond of study, have health and leisure; why not study medicine? If I could have been treated by a lady doctor, my worst sufferings would have been spared me.

Blackwell 1844  – On studying medicine

My mind is fully made up. I have not the slightest hesitation on the subject; the thorough study of medicine, I am quite resolved to go through with. The horrors and disgusts I have no doubt of vanquishing. I have overcome stronger distastes than any that now remain, and feel fully equal to the contest. As to the opinion of people, I don’t care one straw personally; though I take so much pains, as a matter of policy, to propitiate it, and shall always strive to do so; for I see continually how the highest good is eclipsed by the violent or disagreeable forms which contain it.

Blackwell 1846 – On studying medicine


Controversies

1847: Geneva Medical College accepted Blackwell’s application. The faculty assumed that the all-male student body would never agree to a woman joining their ranks and therefore allowed the 150 male students to vote on her admission. They voted “yes,” and she gained admittance. There are various accounts as to why the students voted to allow her to enter, although it is likely that they thought that she would never succeed. [Stephen Smith MD 1892]

1849: Punch devoted a lyrical aside to mark the occasion…

Young ladies all, of every clime
Especially of Britain,
Who wholly occupy your time
In novels or in knittin’
Whose highest skill is but to play
Sing, dance, or French to clack well,
Reflect on the example, pray
Of excellent Miss Blackwell!

An MD in a Gown. Punch 1849;16:226


Major Publications

References

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GP trainee in the UK after three years of Emergency Medicine in Brisbane and Perth. Fascinated by the history of medicine.

Emergency physician MA (Oxon) MBChB (Edin) FACEM FFSEM with a passion for rugby; medical history; medical education; and informatics. Asynchronous learning #FOAMed evangelist. Co-founder and CTO of Life in the Fast lane | Eponyms | Books | vocortex |

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