On February 3, 1821, British-born physician Elizabeth Blackwell was born. Blackwell is notable as the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States, as well as the first woman on the UK Medical Register. She was the first woman to graduate from medical school, a pioneer in promoting the education of women in medicine in the United States, and a social and moral reformer in both the United States and in the United Kingdom.
Elizabeth was born in Bristol, England to Samuel Blackwell, who was a sugar refiner, and his wife Hannah (Lane) Blackwell. Growing up, Elizabeth Blackwell’s father believed that all children, boy and girls should be equally supported in developing their talents. In 1832, the family emigrated from Bristol, England to New York because Samual Blackwell had lost their most profitable sugar refinery to a fire. In New York, her father became active in abolitionist work. Therefore, their dinnertime discussions often surrounded issues such as women’s rights, slavery, and child labor. Blackwell was mainly taught by private tutors. A few years after the family moved to New York, the family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. When Blackwell was 17 her father passed away, leaving the family with very little money.
The Cincinnati English and French Academy for Young Ladies
To feed the family, Elizabeth’s mother ran a private school together with her three daughters, The Cincinnati English and French Academy for Young Ladies. Later on, Blackwell began to teach private students next to studying art, attending lectures, writing short stories and attending various religious services. She also became interested in political campaigns and started writing about women’s rights in her personal manuscripts.
The Difficulties to be Admitted to Study
Elizabeth Blackwell started saving money in order to be able to study medicine. She became a music teacher at an Academy in Asheville, North Carolina, with the goal of saving up the $3,000 necessary for her medical school expenses. In Asheville, Blackwell lodged with the respected Reverend John Dickson, who happened to have been a physician before he became a clergyman. He let Blackwell use the medical books in his library. His brother Samuel Henry Dickson, a prominent Charleston physician also supported the young woman. She began to apply for medical studies via letters, with no favorable responses. Blackwell’s wish to study medicine somewhere near Philadelphia was not successful, even though she gained experience and studied anatomy privately with Dr. Jonathan M. Allen. Physicians she met gave Blackwell the advice to either disguise herself as a man in order to study in America or go to Paris.
The Medical Degree
In 1847, Elizabeth Blackwell was finally accepted as a medical student by Hobart College in upstate New York, which was back then called Geneva Medical College. However, she was only accepted as a medical student there because all of the 150 male students of the class voted to accept her. Blackwell’s studies went well and during the summers she gained experience working with typhus patients back in Philadelphia. Her final thesis at Geneva Medical College was also on typhus, and her conclusion that physical health was linked with socio-moral stability already foreshadowed her future work. In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States.
Further Studies in Europe and Loosing one Eye
In order to continue her studies in Europe, Blackwell first visited hospitals in Britain and later Paris. In June 1849, she enrolled La Maternité; a “lying-in” hospital. However, she was only accepted as a student midwife, not a physician. The young physician Hippolyte Blot supported Blackwell’s studies with his mentorship and training. During the same year, Paul Dubois, the foremost obstetrician in his day, had voiced his opinion that she would make the best obstetrician in the United States, male or female. Unfortunately, when Blackwell treated a child with ophthalmia neonatorum she accidentally spurted a contaminated solution in her eye. It got infected and had to be surgically removed. After recovering, Blackwell enrolled at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London and attended James Paget‘s lectures.
Establishing her own Practice
Feeling that the prejudice against women in medicine was not as strong there, Blackwell returned to New York City in 1851 with the hope of establishing her own practice. In the beginning, she had only few patients and began giving lectures and publishing own works. She supported Marie Zakrzewska, a Polish woman pursuing a medical education. Blackwell, her sister, and Zakrzewska opened a dispensary and expanded it to the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. In it, women served on the board of trustees, on the executive committee and as attending physicians. The institution accepted both in and outpatients and served as a nurse’s training facility. The patient load doubled in the second year. Also during the Civil War, the Blackwell sisters came to help in nursing efforts.
During the 1870s, Elizabeth Blackwell established a women’s medical school in London with the primary goal of preparing women for the licensing exam of Apothecaries Hall. She was also elected as a lecturer in midwifery and resigned this position in 1877, officially retiring from her medical career. Blackwell, in her later years, was still relatively active. In 1895, she published her autobiography, Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women. It was not very successful, selling fewer than 500 copies. After this publication, Blackwell slowly relinquished her public reform presence, and spent more time traveling. She visited the United States in 1906 and took her first and last car ride. In 1907, while holidaying in Kilmun, Scotland, Blackwell fell down a flight of stairs, and was left almost completely mentally and physically disabled. On 31 May 1910, she died at her home in Hastings, Sussex, after suffering a stroke that paralyzed half her body.
References and Further Reading:
-  Elizabeth Blackwell at Famous Scientists
-  Elizabeth Blackwell at Britannica
-  Elizabeth Blackwell Biography
-  Elizabeth Blackwell at Wikidata
-  History of Medicine: “That Girl There Is Doctor in Medicine” – Elizabeth Blackwell, America’s First Woman M.D.
-  Works by or about Elizabeth Blackwell, at Wikisource
-  “Obituary of Elizabeth Blackwell, M.D.” British Medical Journal. BMJ. 1 (2581): 1523–1524. 1910-06-18
-  Dame Sally Davies gives the Inaugural Elizabeth Blackwell Public Lecture, 2015, Elizabeth Blackwell Institute @ youtube
-  Timeline of early female physicians born before 1830, via Wikidata