Elizabeth Blackwell, MD, First Woman to Receive Medical Degree (1821-1910)
Elizabeth Blackwell was born in Bristol, England in 1821, daughter of Hannah and Samuel Blackwell and the 3rd daughter of 9 surviving children. Her father, Samuel, was very progressive and a social activist. He believed in women’s rights, temperance and abolitionism and had private tutors teach his children subjects such as mathematics, Latin and Greek. The family immigrated to the U.S. in 1832.
Several of his children followed in his reform principles. Elizabeth became the first woman to receive a U.S. medical degree, her sister Emily was the 3rd woman to be awarded a U.S. medical degree, son Samuel married Antoinette Brown Blackwell, the first ordained woman minister, son Henry Browne Blackwell married Lucy Stone, a prominent women’s rights activist and their daughter, Alice Stone Blackwell, a suffrage and temperance leader, was the head writer of the Woman’s Journal, Boston, The family was strongly opposed to slavery and after meeting with William Lloyd Garrison, became involved in abolitionist activities as well.
The Blackwell family suffered serious financial losses which culminated with the Panic of 1837. They relocated to Cincinnati, Ohio in 1838 and in that same year Samuel Blackwell died. Elizabeth helped support the family by teaching in a small private school that she and her sisters Anna and Marion established in Cincinnati. She also later taught in Kentucky and North Carolina, all the while pursuing her studies and interests in medicine and the reform movements. She studied privately with John Dickson in Asheville, N.C. and then his brother Samuel in Charleston, S.C. and in 1847 moved to Philadelphia PA with the intent of gaining admission to a medical school while still studying privately.
Blackwell was turned down by 29 medical schools to which she had applied when finally the administration of Geneva College, hesitating to admit her themselves, asked their students to make the final decision. The students laughingly said yes and so she entered their medical school as the first woman to be admitted. There, however, she was ostracized by both male students and teachers and she was not permitted to attend medical demonstrations. Yet when she graduated in 1849, she ranked first in her class and when she received her degree as the first woman to qualify as a doctor in the U.S., more than 20, 000 people came to watch her receive that degree . When the Dean, Dr. Charles Lee conferred it, he stood up and bowed to her.
Elizabeth felt that women might prefer consulting with and being treated by a woman rather than a man and, after graduation, moved to Europe where she studied midwifery at La Maternite in Paris as a student midwife. She gained a great deal of training and experience from the mentorship of Dr. Hippolyte Blot and by the end of the year, Paul Dubois, the foremost obstetrician in his time, gave his opinion that Elizabeth would make the best obstetrician in the U.S., male or female. While there, however, she contracted purulent ophthalmia and lost the sight in one eye. This forced her to give up her idea of becoming a surgeon.
In 1850, she moved to England and worked under Dr. James Poaget at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London where she met Florence Nightingale and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. Both of these women were inspired by Blackwell and became pioneers for women in medicine in Britain. Returning to New York City in 1851, Blackwell was barred from city clinics and dispensaries because she was a woman and was unable to find appropriate quarters to rent. Finally, in 1853, she opened a clinic in an impoverished part of New York City where she treated women and children.
After a few years her sister Emily, now a physician, joined her in the practice along with Dr. Marie Zakrzewska (later the founder of New England Hospital for Women and Children). In 1857, the women expanded the clinic into a hospital, the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. During this time she adopted an orphan, Katherine Barry, who stayed with Blackwell the rest of her life.
Blackwell had ties to the women’s rights movement from its earliest days and was proudly proclaimed a pioneer for women in medicine as early as the Adjourned Convention in Rochester, NY (1848).
She once again returned to England and some years later became the became the first woman to have her name added to the General Medical Council’s Medical Register.
In 1851, Blackwell went back to the United States, which was on the brink of the Civil War. After the outbreak, she helped establish the Woman’s Central Relief Association in New York City. This group was instrumental in the establishment of the United States Sanitary Commission (1861). The organization, largely made up of women, aided the Union army by giving them food, medical supplies, clothing and other services.
After the war was over, she followed her long-held dream of founding a medical college for women. This was finally realized in 1868 with the opening of Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary in New York City where Blackwell’ s innovative ideas about a four year training period with a much greater clinical training were incorporated. Elizabeth became the Hospital’s first Chair of Hygiene.
She stayed but for a short time and returned to England in 1869 where she would remain for the rest of her life. In 1871, she helped establish the National Health Service and in that same year, Blackwell accepted a chair in gynecology at the New Hospital and London School of Medicine for Women. A year later she resigned that position and spent the rest of her life lecturing and writing. In 1880, Great Britain’s Fortnightly Journal listed six hundred names of prominent women for suffrage and Blackwell’s name appeared there among medical practitioners lending their name to the cause.
Over the next 30 years she published a number of books, essays and pamphlets in which she espoused her belief that many medical diseases could be prevented by proper hygiene and sanitation. She wrote that medical issues were often caused by societal problems such as poverty and lack of education. Blackwell was a strong proponent of moral reform, believing that men and women should be held to the same standard of behavior. In 1895, she published her auto-biography, “Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women.” After publishing her book, she gave up public reform work and spent much of her time traveling. In 1906, she visited the U.S., taking her first and only automobile ride.
In 1907, she had a serious fall and became almost entirely disabled. Blackwell died on May 10, 1910 in Hastings, England, leaving behind her an amazing legacy for women in medicine,
In March, 2013, the U.S. Department of Education celebrated Women’s History Month – Women’s Education, Women’s Empowerment – reflecting on amazing women who have left their mark throughout history. As part of their month-long commemoration of inspirational women, Elizabeth Blackwell, M.D, was highlighted as one of two women chosen because of their incredible ability to break glass ceilings through their dedication to education. She opened the door for women in medicine forevermore.
As Elizabeth Blackwell stated, “For what is done or learned by one class of women, becomes by virtue of their common womanhood — the property of all women.” Following decades of her pursuit of excellence, improvements in healthcare and an extraordinary commitment to women’s rights, I think that Dr. Blackwell would be very proud of the fact that today approximately 50% of all medical students are women.
CaseNetwork wanted to honor Elizabeth Blackwell’s pioneering work in medicine and especially her leadership in the field of women’s health as we roll out our Obstetrics and Gynecology resident curriculum. This product is called CoreCases and is a competency-based resident curriculum in the form of simulated patient encounters. It utilized the most advanced technologies to couple it with private social networks (peer-to-peer learning) and deliver it conveniently on mobile devices. As a result of this innovative education methodology, residents are able to learn faster, with greater efficiency and convenience. In addition, educators are able to track learners’ progress, measure achievement, and objectively and consistently demonstrate proficiency at specific milestones in training.
As CaseNetwork continues its pursuit to become the new standard in medical education, I can personally relate to another quote by Dr. Blackwell, “It is not easy to be a pioneer- but oh, it is fascinating! I would not trade one moment, even the worst moment, for all the riches in the world.”
All the best!
Jeffrey S. Levy, MD
(With special thanks to researcher and historian, Patricia L. Stellwagon)