Elizabeth Blackwell was a pioneer in the field of preventative medicine and the first woman in America to receive a medical degree. She was born into a large and privileged family in Bristol, England, on February 3, 1821. Her father, Samuel, was a sugar refiner. In 1832, after his business failed, the family emigrated to the United States, where they became active in the abolition movement and other unpopular causes.
Blackwell’s father died shortly after the family moved to Cincinnati in 1837, and she became a teacher to help keep the family financially afloat. In 1845, she visited a friend named Mary Donaldson, who was dying of cancer. During their conversation, Donaldson commented, “If I could have been treated by a lady doctor, my worst sufferings would have been spared me.” Then she said, “You are fond of study, Elizabeth. You have health, leisure, and a cultivated intelligence. Why don’t you devote these qualities to the service of suffering women? Why don’t you study medicine?”
Blackwell tried to reject Donaldson’s suggestion. She was not fond of science nor was she particularly interested in healing the sick. However, she slowly warmed to the idea of a challenge, and within months, she was reading medical books and trying to gain admission to medical schools. She was rejected by 29 schools before receiving a reply from tiny Geneva Medical College in upstate New York. The professors had put her application before the student body, who had voted for her admission either as a joke or to annoy the faculty, who clearly did not want her there.
When she arrived in Geneva in November 1847, the wives of the faculty would not even look at her, considering her “either wicked or insane.” Through hard work and determination, she graduated near the top of her class on January 29, 1849. As college president Benjamin Hale handed her the degree, she said, “Sir, by the help of the Most High, it shall be the effort of my life to shed honor on this diploma.”
She spent the next few years in France and England, trying without tremendous success to gain admittance into the medical community. While she was away, her sister Emily had also decided to become a doctor, and in 1857, the two opened the first women’s hospital, the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. In 1868, she opened the first women’s Medical College on the infirmary grounds. The next year, considering her pioneering work in America complete, she left for England.
In England, Blackwell helped organize the National Health Society and was a cofounder of the London School of Medicine for Women, where she taught for many years as a professor of gynecology. She was the first woman listed in the British Medical Register. She also became a well-known writer and lecturer on preventative medicine and women’s rights.
Blackwell settled in a village near the English Channel, where she died on May 31, 1910, at the age of 89. By that date, there were 7,399 female doctors and surgeons in the United States.
Hygiene; Preventive Care; Women’s Health (General).
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