In A Nutshell
As a young woman in the early 1800s, Elizabeth Blackwell was disgusted by the very thought of studying medicine. However, when a dying friend told her that a female doctor would have made her illness easier, Blackwell applied to medical school. As a joke, there was a unanimous vote to admit her. Although patients and other doctors initially shunned her after she became a doctor, Blackwell went on to establish the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, providing healthcare for the poor and medical training for other women. She also helped to found the London School of Medicine for Women.
The Whole Bushel
As a young woman in the early 1800s, Elizabeth Blackwell was disgusted by the very thought of studying medicine. She chose to go into teaching instead. However, when a dying friend told her that a female doctor would have made her illness easier, Elizabeth applied to over a dozen medical schools. All but Geneva Medical College in New York rejected her. But Geneva didn’t really want a woman, either. The dean and faculty decided to let the all-male student body vote on Elizabeth’s admission. If anyone voted against it, they would reject her.
However, as a joke, the students voted unanimously to accept Elizabeth. No one thought she would actually show up for school. But she surprised everyone, eventually graduating with her class in 1847 as the first American woman to earn an MD.
In 1849, Elizabeth traveled to Paris for post-graduate work at the renowned maternity hospital, La Maternite. While there, she treated a baby with eye infections, possibly from gonorrhea passed on by the mother during birth. When Elizabeth accidentally spread the infection to her own left eye, she was blinded in that eye, ending her dream of becoming a surgeon. Next, she went to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, where she practiced everything except gynecology and pediatrics, which were to become her specialties.
Elizabeth returned to New York City in 1850. Hardly anyone wanted to go to a woman doctor, so she eventually set up medical help for people who wouldn’t be so concerned with her gender: the poor. In 1857, along with Dr. Emily Blackwell, her sister, and Dr. Marie Zakrzewska, Elizabeth Blackwell founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, providing healthcare for the poor and medical training for other women.
Emily Blackwell had become the third woman in America to earn an MD in 1854. Like her sister, Emily was rejected by almost every medical college to which she applied. Rush Medical College in Chicago accepted her but kicked her out of the program after the first year at the insistence of the Medical Society of Illinois. She eventually finished her training at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio. After moving to America and meeting Emily, Marie applied to Case Western’s School of Medicine, too. She earned her MD in 1856.
Despite the tremendous contributions of all three women to the opening of the New York Infirmary, it was Emily who kept the institution going strong after Elizabeth and Marie left for other opportunities two years later.
In the following years, Elizabeth spent a lot of time traveling through Europe. She wrote frequently on topics of medicine and health. She also became involved in social reform, especially women’s rights, Christian socialism and various medical issues. In the mid-1870s, Elizabeth helped to found the London School of Medicine for Women. She ended her career there as a professor of gynecology in 1907, when a fall down some stairs left her with serious injuries. Elizabeth died in 1910 from a stroke.
Show Me The Proof
Featured photo credit: Joseph Stanley Kozlowski
Changing the Face of Medicine: Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, Dr. Emily Blackwell, Dr. Marie E. Zakrzewska
PBS Newshour: How Elizabeth Blackwell became the first female doctor in the U.S.