In honor of Women’s History Month, we thought we would celebrate America’s first female doctor. Meet Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to graduate from medical school in the United States. In 1821 Elizabeth was born in England but at age 11 her father moved their family to New York City for financial reasons and because her father wanted to help abolish slavery. Accordingly, after his death in 1838 his children, including Elizabeth, would continue to campaign for women’s rights and support the anti-slavery movement.
While in her mid-20s, Blackwell had a friend suffering from a terminal disease who had felt embarrassed going to male doctors, lamenting that she would have fared better having a female physician. Deeply affected by her friend's words and struggling with an affair of the heart as well, Blackwell opted to pursue a career in medicine. But the road to becoming a doctor was not an easy one. As some other women did at the time, she studied independently with doctors before getting accepted in 1847 to Geneva Medical College in upstate New York. Her acceptance was deemed by the student body as an administrative practical joke.
Two years later, in 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to receive an M.D. degree from an American medical school. She worked in clinics in London and Paris for two years and studied midwifery at La Maternité where she contracted ophthalmia neonatorum from a young patient. When Blackwell lost sight in one eye, she returned to New York City in 1851, giving up her dream of becoming a surgeon.
Blackwell returned to Europe and worked in London and Paris. She focused on midwifery at La Maternité, where she contracted a disease during a procedure on an infant that left her blind in one eye; making her unable to practice surgery as she had wished. Blackwell later returned to New York City and established a private practice, at first struggling financially again due to the prejudices of the day. She applied for a job as physician at the women's department of a large city dispensary but was refused. In 1853, with the help of friends, she opened her own dispensary in a single rented room, seeing patients three afternoons a week. The dispensary was incorporated in 1854 and moved to a small house she bought on 15th Street. Her sister, Dr. Emily Blackwell, joined her in 1856 and, together with Dr. Marie Zakrzewska, they opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children at 64 Bleecker Street in 1857. This institution and its medical college for women (opened 1867) provided training and experience for women doctors and medical care for the poor.
Soon after establishing the college, Elizabeth Blackwell returned to England. She set up private practice and served as a lecturer at the London School of Medicine for Women. She eventually moved to Hastings, England. Elizabeth Blackwell died at her home there on May 31, 1910. A grand visionary who created opportunities for female physicians of the future, Blackwell published several books over the course of her career, including her 1895 autobiography Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women.
Visit this website for more reading on Dr. Blackwell and other amazing women of history: AWH - all the kick-ass women history books left out!
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