Elizabeth Blackwell's Fight to Become the First Female Doctor
Elizabeth Blackwell Portrait
Elizabeth Blackwell Born in England
Elizabeth was born the daughter of Hannah Lane and Samuel Blackwell in 1821 their third child. She was born in Bristol, England. Her family enjoyed a prosperous lifestyle until riots broke out and they lost their business. Her father made the decision to move the family to America while she was still a young girl. Samuel Blackwell felt he would have more job opportunities in America and he wanted to support the anti slavery movement and women’s rights movement for his daughters. The Blackwell family settled in New York in 1832.
Elizabeth’s father did not want his children educated by the church so they received their education through their parents and private tutors. Elizabeth could speak several languages including French and German as well as English. She also received education in music and literature. Elizabeth was fortunate that her father believed in education for his daughters as well as for his sons. This was a time when usually women did not have the same opportunities for education as men. In fact, it was rare for a woman to have access to higher education at all. To become a doctor, Elizabeth would have to fight long held views and preconceived ideas on the roles of women in society.
First Work Experiences
When Elizabeth was eighteen her father died unexpectedly, he left her mother Hannah, with nine young children to provide for. For some time, Elizabeth along with her two sisters and mother worked as teachers to support the family. Teaching was one of the few occupations that society accepted for women at that time. Together the Blackwell women opened a private academy for young women in Cincinnati, Ohio. Elizabeth also moved to Henderson, Kentucky to take a teaching position. However, her anti-slavery views seemed to be in contrast with the schools teachings and she left there after her first year.
During this time period, Elizabeth had a close friend who was dying of a disease that affected women only. This friend was the person who most influenced Elizabeth to pursue a career in medicine. She confided to Elizabeth how embarrassing it was for her to let male doctors examine her. Her friend wished that females were allowed to enter the medical field and treat women like her. This was the first time that Elizabeth had ever considered the possibility of studying to become a doctor. She had never considered medicine as a career. In fact, she had found the study of the body, diseases and sickness to be appalling and disgusting. But now, in honor of her friend’s thoughts and wishes, Elizabeth set her sights on becoming the first world’s first woman doctor. It would not be an easy path to forge.
The Fight For a Career As a Woman Doctor
In the beginning of her quest to earn a medical degree, many of her friends were against the idea, and tried to discourage her. They didn’t feel she had any chance of becoming a doctor due to being a woman. Elizabeth persisted even though she had no idea how to begin. So she began by studying with private doctors John and Samuel Dickison, who were willing to teach her. She also spent a lot of time reading and studying on her own. From there, she began to apply to different medical schools but was always told that because she was a woman they would not accept her. Finally, one school did admit her to their medical program of study. It was the Geneva Medical College in New York. Although she was admitted to the college it was not going to be an easy road to her medical degree. The male students treated her as a sort of an oddity and a joke; some actually went so far as to bully her. Some professors refused to let her in their classrooms and demonstrations. Elizabeth refused to give up no matter how much abuse she received and just worked and studied even harder. In Jan 1849, it paid off and she received her medical degree and graduated first in her class. I wonder how chagrined and embarrassed those boys who had bullied her felt.
After graduating with her medical degree, she moved to London and Paris where she continued studying. Here she took courses in mid wife studies. Unfortunately, it was here that she would encounter an eye infection from one of her patients. She lost her eye due to the infection and thus ended her ambition of becoming a surgeon.
Doctoring in New York
Upon returning to New York, she set about helping poor women and children. She opened several facilities for women and children to receive medical treatment. She also opened the first medical college for women in New York. Elizabeth’s younger sister Emily had followed her into the field of medicine and the two of them worked together in opening and operating these facilities for poor women and children, as well as many other causes. Doctor Rebecca Cole would be the first black woman doctor to work with Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell at her Infirmary for women and children.
Civil War And President Lincoln
During the Civil War, Elizabeth helped the Union effort with her knowledge of medical practices. This included advocating for clean sanitary conditions as well as proper personal hygiene in Union hospitals and army camps. She also worked with President Lincoln in establishing The US sanitary commission. She trained other nurses in proper sanitary procedures for war time. These trained nurses helped to reduce diseases from spreading though hospitals and among the men in the army camps.
Elizabeth Blackwell Achievements
- First woman to receive a medical degree
- Worked and studied at Bartholomew’s Hospital in London
- Opened a private practice when no one hospital would hire her
- Opened the New York Dispensary for poor women and children
- Opened the New York Infirmary for indigent women and children
- First woman listed on the British Medical Register
- Opened the first medical college for women
- Worked with President Lincoln during the Civil War to establish the US sanitary Commission in 1861
- Lectured at the London School of Medicine for Women
- Inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame 1973
This is only a short list of the achievements of Elizabeth Blackwell. I am sure there are many others as well.
Elizabeth Blackwell Medical Degree
Books by Elizabeth Blackwell
- The Religion of Health
- Essays in Medical Sociology
- The Human Element in Sex
- Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women
- Medicine as a Profession for Women
- Address on the Medical Education of Women
Again this is only a short list of books and articles written by Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell. I believe she also wrote many articles about women's health as well as articles about sanitation, cleanliness, and hygiene.
Elizabeth Blackwell: A Lasting Legacy
Elizabeth forged a path into the medical field for many other women to follow, including her sister Emily. The two of them together whether working together or separately brought about the acceptance of women in a field that had viewed women as inferior, ignorant, lacking sense and not having the mental attitude for the medical profession. Elizabeth proved them wrong
Elizabeth Blackwell: Her Story
Questions & Answers
© 2019 L.M. Hosler