Elizabeth Blackwell is famous for being the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States. With most universities unwilling to accept her due to the bias against her sex, it was a stroke of luck which allowed Blackwell to join the Geneva Medical College in 1847. Apart from becoming the first female doctor in U.S., she also went on to help in the establishment of the first medical school for women in Britain. Know about her life and accomplishments through these 10 interesting facts.

 

#1 Her sister Emily also became a doctor and was the third woman in U.S. to do so

Born on 3 February 1821 in Bristol, Gloucestershire, England, Elizabeth was the third of nine children of Samuel Blackwell, a sugar refiner, and his wife Hannah. Samuel Blackwell was liberal in his views and considered it important that not only his sons but also his daughters were well educated and were given an opportunity to realize their full potential. Several Blackwell children went on to achieve great things. Elizabeth’s elder sister Anna became a poet and wrote for many newspapers, her younger sister Emily was the third woman in U.S. to get a medical degree and her younger brother Henry became a successful journalist, editor and businessman, and married Lucy Stone, the famous women’s rights activist.

Emily Blackwell
Elizabeth’s sister Emily Blackwell

 

#2 She was inspired to pursue medical profession due to the plaint of a dying friend

At first Elizabeth Blackwell was disgusted even by the “thought of dwelling on the physical structure of the body and its various ailments”. Her favorite subjects were history and metaphysics. The idea of pursuing a career in medicine came to her after a close female friend, who was dying of a painful disease, expressed that her suffering would have been less if she had had a lady doctor. Another factor was that she wanted to be engrossed in a pursuit that would keep her independent and away from ordinary marriage. She also believed that motherly instincts of women would make them better doctors.

Henry Blackwell
Elizabeth’s brother Henry Blackwell

 

#3 She wanted to be admitted in one of the prestigious colleges in Philadelphia

To raise money for her medical education, Elizabeth took the job of a music teacher at an academy in Asheville, North Carolina. She lodged with respected Reverend John Dickson who allowed her to study medical books in his library. She then moved to the residence of his brother Samuel Henry Dickson, a prominent physician in Charleston, who helped her in her pursuit. She took a teaching job in a Charleston boarding school. In 1847, she moved to Philadelphia as it was her greatest wish to be accepted in one of the medical schools there.

Samuel Henry Dickson
Samuel Henry Dickson

 

#4 Blackwell joined the Geneva Medical College in 1847

After her application was rejected by the four medical colleges in Philadelphia, Blackwell applied to 12 smaller schools in the northern states. Among them was the Geneva Medical College (now Hobart College) in New York. After the dean and faculty were not able to make a decision, they put the matter to vote in front of the 150 male students of the class on the condition that even if one objected, Blackwell would be denied admission. The students, thinking it was a silly joke, voted unanimously in favor of admitting her. Thus in October 1847, Elizabeth Blackwell accepted the invitation to join the Geneva Medical College.

Geneva Medical College
Geneva Medical College in Geneva, New York

 

#5 Male students at her college became well-mannered due to her presence

Elizabeth Blackwell
Elizabeth Blackwell

The male students at the Geneva Medical College treated her well. Medical students in the college used to be boisterous during lectures often passing crude remarks at the lecturer. However due to the presence of Blackwell, her classmates turned into well behaved gentlemen. James Webster, the professor of reproductive anatomy, asked Blackwell to not attend his classes as the topic was too “unrefined” for a woman’s “delicate sensibilities”. However Elizabeth’s eloquent response convinced him otherwise.

#6 Elizabeth Blackwell was the first female doctor in the United States

Between her terms Blackwell returned to Philadelphia and stayed with Dr William Elder. After some convincing, she was allowed to gain clinical experience at the charity hospital Blockley Almshouse. Elizabeth’s graduating thesis was on the topic of typhus and in its conclusion she linked physical health with socio-moral responsibility. On 23 January 1849, the 28-year-old Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to achieve a medical degree in the United States. As she was granted her degree, Charles Lee, the dean of the college, stood up from his chair and made a courtly bow in her direction.

 

#7 She was unable to become a surgeon due to an accident

Blackwell traveled to Europe to continue her studies. In June 1849, she joined the famed maternity hospital in Paris, La Maternité. She was acclaimed by her teachers as a superb obstetrician. On 4 November 1849, Elizabeth accidentally sprayed contaminated solution in her left eye while treating an infant with a bacterial infection of the eyes. Due to this unfortunate incident Blackwell lost sight in her left eye and was not able to pursue her dream of becoming a surgeon.

1905 Portrait of Elizabeth Blackwell
1905 Portrait of Elizabeth Blackwell by Joseph Stanley Kozlowski

 

#8 She was the first woman on the UK Medical Register

Blackwell returned to the United States in 1850 and established her own practice in New York City. In 1857, along with Dr. Marie Zakrzewska and her sister Emily, who had also obtained a medical degree, Blackwell expanded her dispensary near Tompkins Square into the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. The institution evolved into the Lower Manhattan Hospital. Blackwell also continued activities in Britain and on 1 January 1859, she became the first woman whose name was on the UK Medical Register.

Lower Manhattan Hospital in 2011
Lower Manhattan Hospital in 2011

 

#9 She helped in the establishment of the first medical school for women in Britain

Elizabeth Blackwell 1974 U.S. postage stamp
1974 U.S. postage stamp commemorating Elizabeth Blackwell

Elizabeth Blackwell helped in the formation of The London School of Medicine for Women. Established in 1874, it was the first medical school in Britain to train women. She retired from the medical profession in 1877. After her retirement she became more involved in her work as a social and moral reformer both in U.S. and U.K. In 1907, while holidaying in Scotland, Blackwell suffered serious injuries after falling down a flight of stairs. The accident disabled her both mentally and physically. On 31 May 1910, Blackwell died at the age of 90 at her home in Hastings in England, after suffering a paralytic stroke.

#10 Blackwell was an abolitionist and a published author

Blackwell was against slavery. During the Civil War she supported the North and even said that she would leave U.S. if the northern states compromised on their stand on slavery. She was involved in several reform movements including those supporting women’s rights, hygiene and family planning. She was also an author and published several books including an autobiography titled Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women. She never married nor had children but had close relationships with several members of her family and Kitty Barry, an Irish orphan she adopted. Barry served as her domestic help and companion.

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