Emily Blackwell (1826-1910) was a pioneer in the field of medicine. She co-founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children in 1857 and served for three decades as head of its medical school.
Although she lived most of her life in the shadow of her older sister, Emily Blackwell made significant contributions of her own to the world of medicine and medical education. Those who knew and worked with her described her as a superb practitioner and an inspirational teacher. The high professional standards Blackwell set for herself and her students were in large part responsible for opening the medical field to women and convincing an often skeptical-and sometimes hostile-public to accept the idea of female physicians.
An Unconventional Childhood
The sixth of nine surviving children born to Samuel and Hannah Lane Blackwell on October 8, 1826, Emily Blackwell spent her early years in the bustling commercial and industrial seaport of Bristol, England. There Samuel prospered as the owner of a sugar refinery. Its success provided a comfortable existence for his large, close-knit family, which also included several of his unmarried sisters.
Both Samuel and his wife were deeply religious and instilled a similar devotion in their children. They also held fairly liberal political and social views for their day, as evidenced in part by their attitude toward education. During an era when girls were expected to master only the subjects that prepared them to be good wives and mothers, the Blackwells saw to it that their daughters as well as their sons studied mathematics, science, literature, and foreign languages. The parents also whetted their children's natural curiosity about the world and encouraged them to express themselves freely. Emily especially liked to roam the fields around Bristol, observing plant and animal life. These provided the foundation for her subsequent passion for botany and ornithology.
Moved to the United States
In 1832, an economic downturn in England all but destroyed Samuel's business. He and Hannah decided to make a fresh start in the United States. The family at first lived in New York City, where Samuel opened a sugar refinery. Within a year or so they moved across the Hudson River to Jersey City, New Jersey. There they quickly became involved in the growing antislavery movement. Over the years family members developed close friendships with some of the country's most prominent abolitionists, including journalist and reformer William Lloyd Garrison, clergyman Lyman Beecher, his son Henry Ward Beecher, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Fire destroyed Samuel's sugar refinery in 1836, leaving the Blackwells deeply in debt. Two years later, depressed over his financial difficulties and physically ill with what was probably malaria, Samuel once again looked westward for a new beginning. This time, he moved his family to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he hoped to start a refinery operation that made use of sugar beets instead of cane sugar. But his health worsened, and he died in August 1838.
Once again, the Blackwells found themselves in dire straits. The three oldest daughters-Anna, Marian, and Elizabeth-opened a boarding school in the family home and operated it until 1842, when the two oldest boys, Henry and Samuel, obtained jobs that paid considerably more than their sisters were able to earn as teachers. By 1845, the Blackwells had paid off most of their debts, freeing Elizabeth to pursue her goal of becoming a doctor. After applying to and receiving rejections from 28 different medical schools, she was finally accepted by Geneva College (now Hobart College) in Geneva, New York, where she began her studies in 1847.
Meanwhile, Emily was struggling to find her own way in life. Bookish and painfully shy, she led a quiet, solitary existence of work and study that masked her growing sense of frustration and unhappiness. She desperately wanted to follow in her sister's footsteps and enter the medical field but was plagued by self-doubt about her suitability for such an undertaking. Instead, she tried teaching and found that she thoroughly detested it. As she confided to her diary around this time, according to writer Ishbel Ross in Child of Destiny, "I long with such an intense longing for freedom, action, for life and truth. I feel as though a mountain were on me, as though I were bound with invisible fetters. I am full of furious bitterness at the constraint and littleness of the life that I must lead.… "
Admitted to Medical School
Elizabeth graduated from medical school at the head of her class in 1849, the first woman to earn a medical degree in the U.S. or Europe. After some additional study in Europe, she returned to the United States in 1851 and established a private clinic in New York City. Before long, she and Emily-who was now determined to become a doctor too-were discussing the idea of practicing medicine together. Emily applied to a number of medical colleges and was rejected by twelve of them (including her sister's alma mater) until Chicago's Rush College admitted her in 1852. During the summer before classes began, she lived with Elizabeth in Jersey City and obtained visiting privileges at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, where she was able to gain valuable experience just walking the wards.
Emily arrived at Rush College in October 1852. She did very well in her studies during her first year and returned to Bellevue Hospital as an observer during the summer of 1853. When it came time to go back to college in the fall, however, Emily had to make other arrangements; Rush officials had withdrawn permission for her to attend class in the face of intense pressure from the Illinois State Medical Society, whose members overwhelmingly opposed the idea of women practicing medicine. Transferring to Western Reserve University in Cleveland (now Case Western Reserve University), Emily continued her education and graduated with honors in the spring of 1854.
As Elizabeth had done before her, Emily then set off for Scotland, where she completed additional training in obstetrics and gynecology under the tutelage of a well-known Edinburgh physician, Sir James Young Simpson. She subsequently journeyed to London, Paris, Berlin, and Dresden, easily winning admittance to a number of clinics and hospitals, thanks to glowing recommendations from Sir James, to engage in further study and observation.
Emily returned to the United States in 1856 and found Elizabeth still fighting to gain acceptance among her fellow physicians and potential patients, most of whom looked upon female doctors with a great deal of suspicion, if not outright hostility. Instead of abandoning her dream, however, Elizabeth had come up with another plan: she would open a full-fledged hospital where women could consult a doctor of their own sex about uniquely female health problems and where training was available for women interested in becoming doctors. Emily agreed to help her achieve this ambitious goal, as did a third physician, Dr. Marie Zakrzewska, a young German-born woman of Polish ancestry whom Elizabeth had helped secure admission to medical school at Western Reserve University.
Co-Founded Hospital for Women and Children
Together, the three doctors set out to raise the money they needed to buy a building and set up a hospital. Thanks to the financial backing of several sympathetic Quaker friends and others of a liberal bent whom they were able to persuade to support their cause, the Blackwell sisters and "Dr. Zak," as she was known, founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. It was the first hospital in the United States for women and the first one staffed entirely by women. Located in a poor neighborhood that was home to a large immigrant population of Germans, Italians, and Slavs, it officially opened its doors in May 1857. Elizabeth served as the director, Emily was the surgeon, and Dr. Zak was the resident physician. Patients were charged according to their ability to pay; four dollars a week if they could afford it, less if they could not. The most destitute of those who came to see a doctor paid nothing at all.
Despite the revolutionary nature of a hospital staffed solely by women, its three founders carefully avoided giving the impression that they were activists of any sort. Most people at that time viewed the fledgling women's rights movement as eccentric, even dangerous; therefore, the Blackwells and Dr. Zak were concerned first and foremost with establishing themselves as competent physicians. To that end, they worked to maintain the highest medical standards while quietly overcoming the prejudices and fears of those they had vowed to serve as well as those who were keeping a close eye on their experiment. Before long, other women with an interest in medicine were coming to the infirmary to work as interns, nurses, and pharmacists.
While Elizabeth handled most of the administrative responsibilities associated with the infirmary and directed ongoing fundraising activities, and Dr. Zak tended to her rapidly expanding private practice (she left in 1862 to open her own hospital in Boston), Emily devoted herself entirely to patient care. By all accounts, she was an excellent physician and surgeon. Even her own sister-whose attention was increasingly focused on promoting good sanitation and social hygiene to prevent health problems-believed that Emily had a natural talent for practicing medicine that she herself lacked.
Assumed Leadership Role
Emily also proved to be an able administrator and fundraiser. In mid-1858, Elizabeth left New York to spend a year in England, where she championed the cause of women physicians and advanced her views on social hygiene. During her absence, the number of patients at the infirmary increased to the point where the operation had to move to larger quarters in 1860. The sisters also expanded the scope of their efforts by launching the first in-home medical social work program in the United States, visiting the poor where they lived to offer basic health care and lessons in proper sanitation. And when the Civil War erupted in 1861, Elizabeth and Emily recruited and trained women who had volunteered to serve as nurses for the Union army.
After the war ended, the Blackwells set themselves yet another difficult task: convincing medical schools to admit women who had had some training at the infirmary. In 1868, when it became clear that their arguments had fallen on deaf ears, they initiated a full course of medical study at the infirmary that consisted of three years of training plus clinical experience. The following year, Elizabeth relocated permanently to England to continue the work she had begun there a decade earlier. Emily then took complete charge of both the infirmary and the school, serving not only as a physician but also as dean and professor of obstetrics and gynecology.
In 1871, after refusing the honor on several previous occasions because of her extreme shyness, Emily Blackwell finally accepted membership in the New York County Medical Society. Also during the 1870s, having finally gained confidence in her abilities as both a physician and a hospital administrator, she became more visibly active in the growing social reform movement. In that role, she tackled issues such as prostitution, sex education, and alcohol abuse.
Spearheaded Period of Growth and Expansion
Under Emily's direction, the infirmary and medical school flourished and moved into more spacious quarters in the mid-1870s. In 1893, the study program for physicians expanded from three to four years. A year later, a comprehensive training course for nurses was established. In 1899, after Cornell University Medical College began accepting female students on an equal basis with men, Emily knew the day had come when there was no longer a need for a women-only medical school. So she arranged for the transfer of her students to Cornell, then retired from the practice of medicine and left the infirmary in the hands of its very capable staff. Some 150 years after its founding, the facility continues to operate as the NYU Downtown Hospital.
Following her retirement in 1900 at the age of 74, Blackwell traveled in Europe for about 18 months. She then divided her time between her winter home in Montclair, New Jersey, and a summer cottage in York Cliffs, Maine, both of which she shared with a former colleague at the infirmary, Dr. Elizabeth Cushier, and Dr. Cushier's niece, who was also a physician. She saw her sister one last time during the summer of 1906 when Elizabeth visited the United States. The following year, the elder Blackwell fell down a flight of stairs while vacationing in Scotland; she never fully recovered from the accident and suffered a stroke in May 1910. Emily lasted only a few months longer, succumbing to enterocolitis (inflammation of the small and large intestines) on September 7, 1910 at her summer home in York Cliffs, Maine.
By carrying on the work she and Elizabeth had begun together, Emily Blackwell helped pave the way for countless other women who were interested in pursuing professional careers in the field of medicine. In fact, more than 360 of them eventually graduated from the very college she established and ran with such skill. Thus, as both a physician and an educator, Emily Blackwell posted a number of accomplishments that easily rank alongside the more heralded ones of her sister.
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