Elizabeth Blackwell

The first woman in America to receive a medical degree, Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) crusaded for the admission of women to medical schools in the United States and Europe.

Elizabeth Blackwell was born on Feb. 3, 1821, in Bristol, England. Her parents emigrated with their nine children to New York City when Elizabeth was 12. Mr. Blackwell soon became an ardent abolitionist. In 1838 the Blackwells moved to Cincinnati, Ohio; within a few months Mr. Blackwell died and left his family unprovided for. The three oldest girls supported the family for several years by operating a boarding school for young women.

In 1842 Blackwell accepted a teaching position in Henderson, Ky., but local racial attitudes offended her strong abolitionist convictions, and she resigned at the end of the year. On her return to Cincinnati a friend who had undergone treatment for a gynecological disorder told Blackwell that if she could have been treated by a woman doctor she would have been spared an embarrassing ordeal, and she urged Elizabeth to study medicine. The following year Blackwell moved to Asheville, N.C., where she taught school and studied medicine in her spare time. Her next move, in 1846, was to a girls' school in Charleston, S.C., where she had more time to devote to her medical studies.

When her attempts to enroll in the medical schools of Philadelphia and New York City were rejected, she wrote to a number of small northern colleges and in 1847 was admitted to the Geneva, N.Y., Medical College. All eyes were upon the young woman whom many regarded as immoral or simply mad, but she soon proved herself an outstanding student. Her graduation in 1849 was highly publicized on both sides of the Atlantic. She then entered La Maternité Hospital for further study and practical experience. While working with the children, she contracted purulent conjunctivitis, which left her blind in one eye.

Handicapped by partial blindness, Dr. Blackwell gave up her ambition to become a surgeon and began practice at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London. In 1851 she returned to New York, where she applied for several positions as a physician, but was rejected because of her sex. She established private practice in a rented room, where her sister Emily, who had also pursued a medical career, soon joined her. Their modest dispensary later became the New York Infirmary and College for Women, operated by and for women. Dr. Blackwell also continued to fight for the admission of women to medical schools. During the Civil War she organized a unit of women nurses for field service.

In 1869 Dr. Blackwell set up practice in London and continued her efforts to open the medical profession to women. Her articles and her autobiography (1895) attracted widespread attention. From 1875 to 1907 she was professor of gynecology at the London School of Medicine for Women. She died at her home in Hastings.


Further Reading on Elizabeth Blackwell

Biographies of Elizabeth Blackwell include Rachel Baker, The First Woman Doctor: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell, M. D. (1944); Ishbel Ross, Child of Destiny: The Life Story of the First Woman Doctor (1949); and Peggy Chambers, A Doctor Alone: A Biography of Elizabeth Blackwell, the First Woman Doctor, 1821-1910 (1956). Elizabeth Blackwell's career is studied at length in Ruth Fox Hume, Great Women of Medicine (1964). There is a brief biographical sketch in Victor Robinson, Pathfinders in Medicine (1912; 2d ed. 1929). See also Elizabeth Blackwell, Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women: Autobiographical Sketches (1895), and Richard H. Shryock, The Development of Modern Medicine: An Interpretation of the Social and Scientific Factors Involved (1936; rev. ed. 1947).