Elizabeth Blackwell: First U.S. Female Doctor

Elizabeth Blackwell was born in 1821, the same year that Napoleon Bonaparte died. Her birth happened on 3 February in Bristol, England, to Samuel Blackwell, a sugar refiner, and his wife Hannah Lane. Elizabeth had two older sisters and would eventually have six younger siblings. Unfortunately, the family fell upon hard times after a fire caused her father to lose his sugar refinery and so in 1832, they immigrated to New York City.

Elizabeth Blackwell

Elizabeth Blackwell. Author’s collection.

Samuel was a religious man, an English Dissenter who served as a lay preacher in an independent church. In addition, according to a Notable American Women, a biographical dictionary:

“[H]is Puritan austerity was leavened with kindliness, humor, and tolerance. …. Because schools were poor and Dissenters’ children barred from them, Samuel Blackwell engaged private tutors, who taught the girls the same subjects as the boys – a liberal departure from the custom of the day.”[1]

Elizabeth Blackwell loved school and loved nature. She was also described in the following manner:

“This favorite daughter was a diminutive blonde (five feet, one inch tall), plainer than her sisters and reserved, but with resources of strength and courage which marked her as leader even in childhood. In maturity her expressive hands and resonant voice were her most command features. From her early years she sought challenges which tested her powers of endurance, as if unconsciously preparing for a life of trial; as a schoolgirl she occasionally slept on the bare floor to ‘harden’ her body.”[2]  

Samuel Blackwell died unexpectedly in August of 1838 from “bilious fever.” This left the family practically penniless and barely surviving. Life was hard and Elizabeth Blackwell wrote:

“This irreparable loss completely altered our lives. Recovering from the first effects of the stunning blow, we began to realise our position, and the heavy responsibilities henceforth devolving on us. The three elder sisters set zealously to work, and in time established a day and boarding school for young ladies; whilest our eldest brother obtained a situation in the Court House of Cincinnati, under Major Gano. For the next few years, until the young children grew up and were able to gradually share in the work, we managed to support the family and maintain a home.”[3]

Blackwell was initially uninterested in medicine and became a schoolteacher instead. However, she did not find teaching challenging and after a female friend fell ill and stated that she might not have suffered if a female doctor had attended her, Blackwell’s interest in medicine was sparked. She then saved her money and headed to Philadelphia, the “chief seat of medical learning in America.”[4] She wanted to personally investigate what opportunities were available for her to study medicine and she quickly decided that she wanted to be accepted into one of Philadelphia’s medical schools:

“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.”[5]

As she attempted to get accepted into a Philadelphia medical school, she boarded with Dr. William Elder. She also began to study anatomy under Dr. Jonathan M. Allen, who helped her overcome her “natural repulsion” to the study of medicine Nonetheless, despite Blackwell’s charming personality, intellect, and preparation, there was resistance to a woman being a doctor. She was turned away by every medical school in Philadelphia and New York, and, in addition, Harvard, Yale, and Bowdoin also denied her entrance. Nonetheless, she refused to give up despite being given less than encouraging advice that included wearing a disguise and assuming “masculine attire” or going to Paris and studying medicine there because she would have “unlimited opportunities.”

Elizabeth Blackwell thought both ideas were rubbish and she refused to go to Paris or disguise herself. Despite being disheartened, she was determined to study medicine in the U.S. and therefore began applying to rural medical schools. Fortunately, she received acceptance at Geneva College in west central New York but later learned her acceptance had been done “with much hilarity, supposing it a spoof perpetrated by a rival school.”[6]  

Geneva College. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Blackwell reached Geneva on 6 November 1847, found a boarding house, and after an interview at the college was placed on the student list as No. 130. Her lodgings were three minutes away from the college and she noted that she had no idea how much of a commotion her appearance created in the local community. As she trudged to and from school ladies stared at her and she soon found herself ostracized by many of the townspeople. Nevertheless, her excitement for her medical studies sustained her and before long she found that curiosity turned into begrudging respect.

While working to become a doctor, she was able to study every aspect of medicine except for the “Diseases of Women.” It seemed ironic that she could not learn about her own sex. Apparently, the Professor of midwifery informed her that he did not approve of a woman studying medicine and therefore refused to allow her to participate in learning about women. Blackwell wrote:

“No one knows how to regard me … Some thought I must be extraordinary intellect overflowing with knowledge; others a queer eccentric woman, and none seemed to understand that I was a quiet, sensible person, who had acquired a small amount of medical knowledge and who wished, by patient observation and study, to acquire more.”[7]

Despite the hardships Blackwell endured she was successful in becoming a doctor graduating from medical school in 1849. On the day of commencement, the ladies of Geneva, who had once been so disapproving, turned out en masse to see the first women doctor receive her diploma. Graduating students met at 10am to march in a procession to the Literary College and Dr. Webster, her favorite professor, wanted Elizabeth to march with her fellow male students in her “black brocaded silk gown, invisibly green gloves, black silk stockings, &c … [but] she told him … that ‘it wouldn’t be ladylike.’”[8]

Instead Blackwell walked quietly to the church with her brother where the commencement exercises were being held. She sat unobtrusively at the back of the church. There were seventeen students in her class and the diplomas were conferred four at time. After her sixteen male students received their degrees, she went up alone. Although the dean had sat through conferring the male students, he now rose, took off his hat, and addressed her before presenting her with her diploma.

“In his speech, he praised Elizabeth for her devotion and hard work in studying medicine. He said that she ‘was fully qualified to practice as a Physician, and that the degree was fully merited.’ It was the answer to the question that was on the minds of many. Dr. Lee, ended his speech saying, ‘God speed her … in her errand of mercy, and crown her efforts with success!’”[9]

As to the ceremony and Blackwell’s receipt of her medical diploma, her brother stated:

“Our sis came off with flying colours, and the reputation of being altogether the leader of the class. … The students all agreed that our Elib. was a great girl and I found she was a universal favourite with professors and students.”[10]

On 18 April 1849 Elizabeth Blackwell set sail for Europe hoping to improve her skills and become a surgeon. She visited medical facilities throughout England and then departed for Paris where she was able to obtain work as a mid-wife in at La Maternité, a lying-in hospital. Unfortunately, while treating an infant suffering from ophthalmia nenonatorum, some of the contaminated solution was squirted into her eye and became infected.

Because she couldn’t work and because she needed to recuperate, she went for hydrotherapy. Unfortunately, about two months later her left eye became serious inflamed and nothing could be done to save it. It was removed and she was fitted with a glass eye. Thus, all hope of her becoming a surgeon was dashed.

In 1850, the same year that the famous wax sculptor Madame Tussaud died, Blackwell enrolled at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. While there she regularly attended lectures given by James Paget, an English surgeon and pathologist who is best remembered for naming Paget’s disease and is considered one of the founders of scientific medical pathology. Elizabeth Blackwell had hoped that the prejudices that had dogged her America would not be found in England or France, but she was wrong. She therefore decided less biases existed against female doctors in America and decided to return. The Lady’s Own Paper reported:

“In 1851 she returned to New York, and commenced the public duties of her profession, confining herself to the diseases of women and children; and though considerably opposed at first, she has since not only acquired a large private practice, but has established a dispensary for women and children (1853), a hospital for women (1857), and we believe, a college.”[11]

In 1856, when Blackwell was establishing the New York Infirmary, she adopted 8-year-old Katherine “Kitty” Barry, an Irish orphan from the House of Refuge on Randall’s Island. Blackwell’s diary entries show that she adopted the 8-year-old for several reasons including loneliness, a feeling of obligation, and the need for domestic help. Thus, Barry become half daughter half servant to Blackwell.

Elizabeth Blackwell

Elizabeth Blackwell by Joseph Stanley Kozlowski in 1963. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In 1857, Elizabeth Blackwell’s sister, Emily graduated from medical school and joined her in her practice. Blackwell, Emily, and Dr. Marie Zakrzewska then expanded the dispensary that Blackwell had set up into the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. The institution accepted both in and outpatients and served as a nurse’s training facility. It was highly successful, and the patient load doubled in the second year.

When the American Civil War broke out, the Blackwell sisters used their skills to help wounded soldiers. Both women were sympathetic towards the North because of their abolitionist roots, their father having been an abolitionist. It was during this time that the male-dominated United States Sanitary Commission (USCC) refused to educate nurses and so, in response, Blackwell joined with the Woman’s Central Relief Association (WCRA) that was ultimately absorbed by the USSC.

Blackwell had also made several trips to Britain to establish a parallel infirmary to the one set up in New York. In addition, she became a mentor to the first female doctor to qualify in England. Things seemed to be going good for Blackwell, and by 1866, nearly 7,000 patients were being treated in New York. Because of all the patients, Blackwell realized she was needed there and thus the parallel project in England fell through, but in 1868, a medical college for women associated with the infirmary was established using Blackwell’s innovative ideas and involving a four-year training period.

Elizabeth Garret Anderson. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

At this point, a rift occurred between Elizabeth Blackwell and her sister Emily. Both were extremely headstrong, and each had a different idea about management of the infirmary and the medical college. Thus, a power struggle ensued and in July of 1869 Elizabeth, feeling slighted by the U.S. women’s medical movement, left for Britain hoping to establish medical education for women there.

In London, Blackwell became involved with Sophia Jex Blake. She had been a student at the New York Infirmary years earlier and although Blake was often belligerent and tactless, Elizabeth Blackwell became deeply involved in the school. It opened as the London School for Medicine for Women in 1874 with the primary goal of preparing women to pass licensing exams at Apothecaries Hall.

Blake was a feminist and after establishment of the school she continued to campaign for women’s rights. She also continued her studies and became Edinburgh’s first female doctor. Unfortunately for Blackwell, she lost much of her authority to Blake partly because she began suffering from “atrocious biliary colic.” Blackwell later claimed her illness affected her work and that she had to seek help by being “frequently obliged” to travel for a cure.

 

Sophia Jex Blake. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Ultimately, however, Elizabeth Blackwell found her illness made it impossible to work “and came to the conclusion, with bitter disappointment, that any future residence in London … must be given up.”[12] She then resigned in 1877 and thereby essentially retired from the medical community. In 1895, she published her autobiography, Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women. It was not popular and sold fewer than 500 copies.

Elizabeth Blackwell

Elizabeth Blackwell. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

In 1902, Elizabeth Blackwell began annual visits to the Highlands of Scotland and five years later fell headlong down a flight of stairs while vacationing in Kilmun, Scotland. The fall left her mentally and physically handicapped. Barry, her adopted daughter, cared for her thereafter until she died on 31 May 1910 at her English seaside home on the south coast in Hastings, Sussex after suffering a paralyzing stroke. Blackwell was cremated and her ashes were buried in the St. Munn’s Parish Church in Kilmun. Numerous papers reported on her death including The Queen, the Lady’s Newspaper that wrote upon her death:

“The first woman who succeeded in opening the profession of medicine to women has passed away … in her ninetieth year. … Like most other women who have trodden an unbeaten track, she was the object of many sneers and insults. She was, of course, told that she was most ‘unwomanly’ and her whole course of action was regarded by many medical men and others as improper in the highest degree. There were, however, enlightened doctors who supported her, and she was treated with becoming respect by the students at the college in America where she worked. … She was an able writer on many subjects of concern to women and the race, and was a lifelong advocate of women’s enfranchisement.”[13]

Elizabeth Blackwell - headstone at St. Munn's Parish Church

Elizabeth Blackwell’s headstone at St Munn’s Parish Church, Kilmun, Scotland. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The London Times also provided an informative biography. Their coverage reported on Blackwell’s life from her earlier years to her time at Geneva to her amazing achievements that span a lifetime. The paper also stated:

“She had a deep sense of the sacredness of maternity; she called it ‘the mighty creative power which more than any other human faculty seemed to bring human nature near the Divine.’ She wrote that ‘The physician knows that the natural family group is the first essential element of a progressive society. The degeneration of that element by the degradation of either of its two essential factors, the man or the woman, begins the ruin of a State.’ It was this faith that animated her whole nature and was visible in all her work. She was a great woman, a great pioneer, and a great example to her fellow-citizens.”[14]

References:

  • [1] E. T. James, J. W. James and P. S. Boyer, eds., Notable American Women: A Biographic Dictionary, 3 vols. 1 (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971), p. 161.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] E. Blackwell, Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women: Autobiographical Sketches (London: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1895), p. 11.
  • [4] Ibid., p. 58.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 55.
  • [6] E. T. James, J. W. James, and P. S. Boyer, eds., p. 162.
  • [7] Vote, “Elizabeth Blackwell Pioneer,” August 7, 1914, p. 5.
  • [8] E. Blackwell. 1895, p. 89.
  • [9] B. A. Somervill, Elizabeth Blackwell: America’s First Female Doctor: America’s First Female Doctor (Pleasantville: Gareth Stevens Pub, 2009), p. 9.
  • [10] Ibid., p. 4.
  • [11] Lady’s Own Paper, “Elizabeth Blackwell, M.D.,” October 19, 1867, p. 1.
  • [12] E. Blackwell. 1895, p. 250.
  • [13] The Queen, the Lady’s Newspaper, “The Late Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell,” June 11, 1910, p. 1047.
  • [14] The Times, “Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell,” June 2, 1910, p. 12.

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