Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to attend medical school and practice medicine in the United States. She desired to provide a more comforting experience for women and children.
Elizabeth was born in Bristol, England, on February 3, 1821, the third of nine children. Her father believed in equal education for his daughters as well as his sons. Elizabeth and her siblings received a good education in England.
The family immigrated to the United States in 1832. Her father was opposed to slavery and became involved in Abolitionist activities. He died in 1838, leaving Elizabeth's mother to provide for the children. Elizabeth contributed to the family income by opening a small private school with her mother and two of her sisters, in Cincinnati, Ohio. She later taught in Kentucky and North Carolina.
Elizabeth became interested in medicine when a friend who was dying told her, "The worst part of my illness is that I am being treated by a rough, unfeeling man." At that time, there were no women doctors in the U.S.
Elizabeth decided to study medicine. She was rejected by 29 colleges, but was finally accepted by Geneva Medical School, Geneva, New York, in 1847. Elizabeth was voted in by the student body; many believed it was a joke, but stood by their vote when she enrolled.
The young woman was ostracized by fellow students, and even her teachers refused to allow her to attend medical demonstrations. Elizabeth was not one to give up, however, and when she graduated in 1849, she ranked first in her class. This made her the first woman in America to qualify as a doctor.
A blinding setback
Elizabeth Blackwell then moved to France to enroll in a midwifery course. While she was there, she contracted an eye infection and lost sight in one eye. Blackwell was forced to give up her plan to become a surgeon.
In late 1850, Blackwell moved to London and worked under Dr. James Paget at St. Bartholomew's Hospital. While she was there, Blackwell became friends with Florence Nightingale and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. Both were inspired by her success and also chose to be pioneers of women’s medicine in Britain.
Back in the U.S.
Blackwell returned to America in 1851. She was refused work in New York’s hospitals and dispensaries, so she resorted to private practice. That experience of discrimination prompted her to write The Laws of Life, published in 1852.
In 1853, Blackwell opened a dispensary in the New York slums. Her sister, Emily Blackwell, joined her shortly after; Emily also had earned her degree in medicine. In 1857, the practitioners established an infirmary for women and children.
Elizabeth Blackwell organized the Women’s Central Association of Relief during the Civil War. She trained nurses for war service. Elizabeth, along with Emily, and Mary Livermore, played important parts in developing the United States Sanitary Commission.
Shortly following the war, the sisters established the Women’s Medical College in New York. Blackwell served as the professor of hygiene until 1869, when she moved to London to help form the National Health Society and the London School of Medicine for Women.
Medical activist Elizabeth Garrett Anderson invited Blackwell to become a professor of gynecology at the London School of Medicine in 1875; she held this post until she suffered a serious fall in 1907.
A pioneer's long life ends
Elizabeth Blackwell died in Hastings, Sussex, on May 31, 1910. She was 89 years old. She never married.
Dr. Blackwell was responsible for opening a whole new world to women. In 1949 the Blackwell medal was established. It is given to women with outstanding achievements in the practice of medicine.