Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to acquire a medical degree from an American medical school, as well as the first woman to be registered as a doctor in the United Kingdom. She was a staunch anti-abortion and pro-woman activist who chose medicine partially because she despised the phrase “female physician” used to describe abortionists. Because the Blackwell family believed in initiatives to abolish slavery and enfranchise women, she was exposed to liberal ideology as a child. Most of the colleges she applied to turned her down for one of two reasons: she was a woman and hence unfit for a medical career, or they were intimidated by her competitive spirit. Geneva Medical College in New York eventually admitted her. She travelled to Paris after finishing her course to obtain some experience. With her sister Emily, America’s second female physician, and their friend Dr. Marie Zakrzewska, she returned to America to expand her dispensary as the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. The Infirmary was the first female-staffed hospital in the United States, providing medical instruction and experience for female doctors as well as inadequate care. Blackwell relocated to England permanently, where she established a private practice, assisted in the founding of the National Health Society, and was appointed professor of gynecology at the London School of Medicine for Women.
Childhood and Adolescence
Samuel Blackwell, a sugar refiner, and his wife Hannah (Lane) Blackwell were the parents of Elizabeth Blackwell, who was born at a house on Dickson Street in Bristol, England. She was the youngest of nine siblings.
Her upbringing was happy since her father had liberal views on childrearing and thought that every child should be given the opportunity to develop their talents.
After a fire destroyed his sugar refinery, Samuel relocated to Cincinnati, but he died in 1838, leaving a widow, nine children, and a large debt.
The Cincinnati English and French Academy for Young Ladies was founded by the sisters to help them get over their financial difficulties. The conservative Cincinnati community did not approve of Elizabeth’s interest in Unitarian Church.
Career of Elizabeth Blackwell
By 1845, she had settled on a medical profession, so she taught music at an academy in Asheville, North Carolina, and stayed with Rev. John Dickson, a physician turned minister, to save money for medical school.
In 1847, she traveled to Philadelphia and New York to look into medical school options. She stayed with Dr. William Elder in Philadelphia and studied anatomy privately, but her applications were turned down.
In 1847, Blackwell was accepted as a medical student at Geneva Medical College in New York by chance, as students mistook her admittance for a joke when asked to vote.
When her anatomy professor, Dr. James Webster, requested her to excuse herself from a lecture on reproduction, she refused, prompting Webster to admit her to the class, and the subject was no longer considered filthy.
She returned to Philadelphia between her two terms in Geneva and applied for medical jobs to get clinical experience. The Guardians of the Poor, who ran Blockley Almshouse, reluctantly gave her permission.
She wrote her graduating thesis on the issue of typhus, linking physical health with socio-moral stability, after seeing the syphilitic ward and individuals suffering from typhus at Blackwell.
She became the first woman in the United States to receive a medical degree in January 1849. Dr. Charles Lee, the dean, stood up and bowed to her after conferring her degree.
She entered La Maternite in June 1849, although not as a physician, but as a student midwife. She became acquainted with Dr. Hippolyte Blot, a young resident physician, and benefited from his guidance.
In November 1849, while treating a newborn, she accidentally spurted some contaminated fluid into her eye, resulting in an infection and the loss of her left eye, as well as all hope of becoming a surgeon.
She came to the United States in 1851 to open her own practice in New York, and eventually opened a small dispensary in Tompkins Square.
In 1857, she enlarged the dispensary into the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children with the help of her sister Emily, who was now a qualified doctor, and Dr. Zakrzewska.
She became the first woman in England to have her name recorded on the General Medical Council’s medical register in 1858, according to a clause in the Medical Act 1858.
After a falling out with Emily, she moved to England and founded the London School of Medicine for Women in 1874, with the primary purpose of educating women for the Apothecaries Hall licensure exam.
She lost a lot of power at the school to Jex-Blake, and she was demoted to a midwifery lecturer. In 1877, she resigned from this job and ended her medical career.
Major Projects of Elizabeth Blackwell
‘The Laws of Life with Special Reference to the Physical Education of Girls’ was published in 1852. The book dealt with the physical and mental growth of girls, as well as young women’s preparation for motherhood.
Her 1878 essay, ‘Counsel to Parents on the Moral Education of their Children,’ was uncompromising on prostitution and marriage, arguing against the Contagious Diseases Acts.
Personal History and Legacy
Elizabeth Blackwell was never married because she valued her freedom and turned down a number of suitors. Katherine “Kitty” Barry, an orphan, was adopted by her in 1856 and raised as a half-servant, half-daughter.
She was well-connected and exchanged letters with Lady Byron on women’s rights issues, as well as being close friends with Florence Nightingale, with whom she discussed building a hospital.
Her ashes were buried in the graveyard of St Munn’s Parish Church in Kilmun, Scotland, where she died at her house in Hastings, England. Her obituaries were published in The Lancet and The British Medical Journal.
The Elizabeth Blackwell Medal has been given to a woman physician by the American Medical Women’s Association since 1949. The Elizabeth Blackwell Award is given by Hobart and William Smith Colleges to women who have made remarkable contributions to humanity.
Estimated Net Worth
The estimated net worth of Elizabeth Blackwell is unknown.
“If society would not accept of woman’s free development, society must be reconstructed,” she remarked as the first woman to acquire a medical degree.