Elizabeth Blackwell, February 3, 1821 – May 31, 1910, was the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States. She was the first openly identified woman to graduate from medical school, a pioneer in promoting the education of women in medicine in the United States, and a social and moral reformer in both the United States and in England. Her sister Emily was the third woman in the US to get a medical degree.(Women disguised as man may have graduated prior to Blackwell.)
Moved To America
Elizabeth was eleven years old when the family sailed for New York in August 1832. Her father set up the Congress Sugar Refinery in New York City after they settled in. He had been a successful sugar merchant in England which allowed his family the luxury of moving to the US.
In 1844 Blackwell procured a teaching job that paid $400 per year in Henderson, Kentucky. Although she was pleased with her pupils, she found the accommodations and schoolhouse lacking.
What disturbed her most was that this was her first real encounter with the realities of slavery. She ultimately found Henderson to be absurd and boring, the people to be simple and petty, and the whole situation, all in all intolerable. She returned to her previous city only half a year later, resolved to find a more stimulating means of spending her life.
Show Me No Medical Books
The idea to pursue medicine was first planted in Blackwell’s head by a friend in Cincinnati who was dying of a painful disease. This friend expressed the opinion that a female physician would have made her treatment much more comfortable. Blackwell also felt that women would be better doctors because of their motherly instincts.
At first, Blackwell was repulsed by the idea of a medical career. At the time, she “hated everything connected with the body, and could not bear the sight of a medical book”. Another influence on her decision to pursue medicine was the connotation of “female physician” at the time.
Abortionists were known as “female physicians”, a name Blackwell found degrading to what a female physician could potentially achieve. Last but not least, part of Blackwell’s decision to become a doctor was due to the fact that she yearned to live an unattached life, independent of a man and the chains of matrimony.
Accident By Unanimous Vote
In October 1847, Blackwell was accepted as a medical student by Geneva Medical College, now part of Upstate Medical University, located in upstate New York. Her acceptance was a near-accident. The dean and faculty, usually responsible for evaluating an applicant for matriculation, were not able to make a decision due to the special nature of Blackwell’s case.
They put the issue up to vote by the 150 male students of the class with the stipulation that if one student objected, Blackwell would be turned away. The young men thought this request was so ludicrous that they believed it to be a joke, and responding accordingly, voted unanimously to accept her.
So, World Change Began
Blackwell had an enormous impact on the class. Her presence turned a group of boisterous young men into well-behaved gentlemen. Whereas before, there was so much confusion and chaos in the lecture hall that the lecture itself was barely audible, with Blackwell’s arrival, the male students sat quietly and listened attentively to lecture.
On January 23, 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to achieve a medical degree in the United States. The local press reported her graduation favorably, and when the dean, Dr. Charles Lee, conferred her degree, he stood up and bowed to her.
Her greatest period of reform activity was after her retirement from the medical profession, from 1880-1895. Blackwell was interested in a great number of reform movements – mainly moral reform, sexual purity, hygiene, and medical education, but also preventative medicine, sanitation, eugenics, family planning, women’s rights, associationism, Christian socialism, medical ethics, and anti-vivisection – none of which ever came to real fruition.
She believed that the Christian morality ought to play as large a role as scientific inquiry in medicine, and that medical schools ought to instruct students in this basic truth. She also was anti-materialist and did not believe in inoculation, vaccines, or germ theory, instead subscribing to more spiritual healing methods. She believed that disease came from moral impurity, not from microbes.
It Was A Big Deal
In Elizabeth Blackwell’s time it was a super significant achievement to become a graduated physician as a woman. That alone changed the world. But she did not stop there. Elizabeth went on to move the paradigm of what women stood for and what they could work toward. What are you working toward in your life?
Source: Wikipedia.org (Please donate to this fine resource.)
Rare Book Profile: Elizabeth Blackwell’s Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women (hslnews.wordpress.com)
Elizabeth Blackwell: the first female doctor in the GMC (wellcome.ac.uk)