Blackwell: First woman doctor in the U.S.

Published 10:47 am Sunday, September 15, 2019

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Women have made great strides in the field of medicine. They have kicked in the glass ceiling. Elizabeth Blackwell was no exception. Let me introduce you to her. Born on Feb. 3, 1821 in Bristol, Gloucestershire, England to mother Hannah Lane and father Samuel Blackwell, Elizabeth was the third oldest of four daughters. As a child she was educated by a private tutor. In 1832 Blackwell’s family moved to the United States of America. Her father was involved in abolitionism which led to a friendship with William Lloyd Garrison. Samuel’s businesses did not do well which caused the family to move from New York to Jersey City finally settling in Cincinnati, Ohio. When Elizabeth’s father died he left the family without financial resources.
In order to support the family Elizabeth, along with her sisters Anna and Marian and their mother, opened a private school in Cincinnati and her younger sister Emily was a teacher there. Elizabeth became interested in medicine although she was repulsed by it at first. Her desire was to meet the needs of women who would prefer to confer with a woman about their health problems. In addition, her religious beliefs and social activism probably influenced her decision. She worked as a teacher in Henderson, Kentucky and North and South Carolina while reading about medicine on her own. In 1847 Elizabeth began searching for a medical school that would admit her for a full course of study. In the beginning all the top schools rejected her but when the Geneva Medical College in Geneva, New York received her application the students were asked by the administration to decide if she was to be admitted. Moreover, the students believing it was only a practical joke approved her admission. When they realized Elizabeth was serious both students and townspeople were horrified.

At first, Elizabeth had few supporters and was an outcast in Geneva. Subsequently, she was banned from classroom medical demonstrations because it was deemed inappropriate for a woman. Impressed by her ability and perseverance she had many students as friends. In January 1849 Elizabeth graduated first in her class becoming the first woman to graduate from medical school and first woman doctor of medicine in modern times. After becoming a naturalized U. S. citizen she left for England to further her studies. Elizabeth studied midwifery in Paris and had plans to become a surgeon but due to blindness in an eye she abandoned that plan. While in England at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital she met and befriended Florence Nightingale.

Later, in 1851 Elizabeth returned to New York but hospitals refused her services. In fact, she was refused lodging and an office by landlords when she attempted to set up a private practice. To remove that stumbling block Elizabeth bought a house to do just that. While serving women and children in her home she wrote and published “The Laws of Life; with Special References to the Physical Education of Girls,” in 1852. She opened a dispensary in New York City’s slums and later her sister Emily, a recent medical school graduate, joined the practice along with Dr. Marie Zakrzewska, a Polish immigrant. Numerous leading male physicians supported her as consultants. Even though Elizabeth never married she adopted orphan Katherine Barry in 1854. In 1857, the Blackwell sisters and Dr. Zakrzewska incorporated the clinic into the New York Infirmary for women and children. Also, in January 1859 she became the first woman to be listed on the British medical register.

During the Civil War, the Blackwells helped organized the Women’s Central Association of Relief which trained nurses for services in the war. This inspired the creation of the U. S. Sanitary Commission. Subsequently, in November 1868 Elizabeth along with Emily opened the women’s Medical College at the infirmary. This institution operated for 31 years. Later in 1869 she returned to England and helped start the National Health Society and founded the London School of Medicine for Women. In 1895 Elizabeth was appointed a professor of psychology at the London School of Medicine for Children founded by Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and worked there until 1907. Elizabeth died May 31, 1910, in Sussex, England.

Elizabeth came full circle in that she started out in England at birth then moved to the U. S. later going back to Europe to further her career all along paying it forward by encouraging other women in her lectures and field work to enter the medical field. For Elizabeth it was a moral duty to provide care for women and to inspire others to do the same. Her faith, persistence and determination set her on a path to community service.

Judy Moore lives in Wylliesburg and can be reached at