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Blackwell, Elizabeth

Elizabeth Blackwell

Born: February 3, 1821
Bristol, England
Died: May 31, 1910
Hastings, England

English physician, educator, reformer, and women's rights activist

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

Early life and childhood

Elizabeth Blackwell was born on February 3, 1821, in Bristol, England to Samuel and Hannah Blackwell. Because Samuel Blackwell was a dissenter (one who refuses to accept the authority of an established church), the Blackwell children were denied public schooling. Samuel hired private tutors who went against English tradition and instructed the girls in the same subjects as the boys. Hannah Blackwell inspired her children by introducing them to music and literature.

When Elizabeth was twelve years old, Samuel Blackwell brought his family to New York, New York. Samuel Blackwell soon became a strong supporter of abolition, the movement to end slavery in America. He also established a sugar refinery in New York City and was doing quite well until the economy faltered in 1837 and he lost most of his wealth.

In 1838 the Blackwells moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, hoping for a new start. But within a few months Samuel Blackwell died, leaving his family unprovided for. The three oldest girls supported the family for several years by operating a boarding school for young women.

Seeking an education

In 1842 Elizabeth Blackwell accepted a teaching position in Henderson, Kentucky, but local racial attitudes offended her strong abolitionist beliefs and she resigned at the end of the year. On her return to Cincinnati, a friend who had undergone treatment for a gynecological disorder (having to do with women's reproductive organs) told Blackwell that if a woman doctor had treated her, she would have been spared an embarrassing ordeal. She also urged Elizabeth to study medicine. At first Blackwell disregarded the idea of becoming a doctor. But eventually her ideas changed, and the thought of becoming a doctor turned into an obsession. Friends discouraged her, though, and even recommended that, if she chose to study medicine, her best choice was to move to France, disguise herself as a man, and only then would she be accepted into medical school.

In 1845 Blackwell moved to Asheville, North Carolina, where she taught school and, with the help of physician John Dickson, studied medicine in her spare time. Her next move, in 1846, was to a girls' school in Charleston, South Carolina, where she had more time to devote to her medical studies, this time under the guidance of Dickson's brother, Samuel.

When Blackwell's attempts to enroll in the medical schools of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and New York City were rejected (by twenty-nine different schools), she wrote to a number of small northern colleges. In 1847 she was admitted to the Geneva, New York, Medical College. Blackwell later learned that her application to the Geneva school was initially rejected and she was only admitted as some sort of practical joke, for no woman had ever attempted to gain admittance into a medical school.

All eyes were upon the young woman whom many regarded as immoral (sinful) or simply mad. At first Blackwell was even barred from attending classroom demonstrations. Soon, however, Blackwell's quiet personality and hard work won over her classmates and teaching staff. 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, an eye infection which left her blind in one eye.

Setting up practice

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 City, where she applied for several positions as a physician, but was rejected because she was a woman.

Blackwell then established a private practice in a rented room, where her sister Emily, who had also pursued a medical career, soon joined her. Their modest dispensary (medical office) 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. In the 1860s she organized a unit of female field doctors during the Civil War (186165), where Northern forces fought against those of the South over, among other things, slavery and secession (the withdrawal of the Southern States from the Federal Union).

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 in 1910, leaving behind a legacy that would pave the way for countless generations of female physicians.

For More Information

Brown, Jordan. Elizabeth Blackwell. New York: Chelsea House, 1989.

Glimm, Adele. Elizabeth Blackwell: First Woman Doctor of Modern Times. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000.

Kline, Nancy. Elizabeth Blackwell: A Doctor's Triumph. Berkeley, CA: Conari Press, 1997.

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Elizabeth Blackwell

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

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). □

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Blackwell, Elizabeth

Elizabeth Blackwell, 1821–1910, American physician, b. England; sister of Henry Brown Blackwell. She was the first woman in the United States to receive a medical degree, which was granted (1849) to her by Geneva Medical College (then part of Geneva College, early name of Hobart). With her sister, Emily Blackwell (1826–1910) who was also a doctor, and Marie Zackrzewska, she founded (1857) the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, which was expanded in 1868 to include a Women's College for the training of doctors, the first of its kind. In 1869, Dr. Blackwell settled in England, where she became (1875) professor of gynecology at the London School of Medicine for Women, which she had helped to establish. She wrote Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women (1895) and many other books and papers on health and education.

See biographies by A. McFerran (1966) and D. C. Wilson (1970).

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"Blackwell, Elizabeth." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 26 Apr. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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