Born 3 February 1821, Counterslip, England; died 31 May 1910, Hastings, England
Daughter of Samuel and Hannah Lane Blackwell
Elizabeth Blackwell's independence of thought, pioneer spirit, and reform interests were promoted in her parents' home. She was the third daughter among nine children. When Blackwell was eleven, her father's sugar refinery was lost by fire and the family sailed from England to settle first in New York City and later in New Jersey and Cincinnati, Ohio. Blackwell's father was an active dissenter and lay preacher in the "Independent" church and was vitally concerned with social reform, the abolition of slavery, women's rights, and temperance. Reformers such as William Lloyd Garrison were visitors to the Blackwell home and Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe were counted as friends in Ohio. In this liberal family atmosphere, the Blackwell daughters and sons received their education at home from private tutors.
In 1847 Blackwell was refused admission to Harvard, Yale, Bowdoin, and medical schools in Philadelphia and New York City. Jefferson Medical College suggested she might attend classes disguised as a man, but Blackwell believed her moral crusade "must be pursued in the light of day, and with public sanction, in order to accomplish its end." Finally, Geneva Medical College, an undistinguished rural school in New York, admitted Blackwell to study in November 1847. The 150 male students at Geneva had unanimously treated her application as a "joke" and Blackwell faced ridicule and discrimination in her classes. In the summer of 1848, however, she was given the opportunity to do work with patients at the Philadelphia Hospital of the Blockley Almshouse. There she treated typhus among Irish immigrants and became convinced of the need for sanitation and personal hygiene. Her convictions were recorded in her thesis, published in 1849 in the Buffalo Medical Journal and Monthly. In 1849, graduating at the head of her class, Blackwell became the first woman in America to earn a degree from a medical college.
Eager to increase her medical knowledge, Blackwell set out for study in Europe after becoming a naturalized American citizen. In Paris she enrolled as a student midwife in La Maternité. There she contracted purulent ophthalmia and lost sight in one eye; all hopes of becoming a surgeon were dashed. During work in England, she began a lifelong friendship with Florence Nightingale and shared interests in sanitation and hygiene.
In 1851 Blackwell returned to New York but faced serious difficulties in establishing a private practice. She turned to lectures and writing on good hygiene. "The Laws of Life, with Special Reference to the Physical Education of Girls," published in 1852, drew a favorable response from Quakers. By 1853 Blackwell had a one-room dispensary in the tenement district of New York and in 1857 was renamed the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. Blackwell's plans for a medical college for women were delayed by the Civil War, but in 1868 the Women's Medical College was opened and Blackwell was appointed to the first chair of hygiene.
Blackwell returned to England in 1869, leaving management of the infirmary and college to her sister. She resided there for the rest of her life with her adopted daughter. She established a successful practice in London and in 1871 helped found the National Health Society with the motto "Prevention is better than cure." In 1875 she was awarded the chair of gynecology at the New Hospital and London School of Medicine for Women.
Blackwell continued to write and lecture on moral reform. Her "Counsel to Parents on the Moral Education of Their Children" (1879) was rejected by 12 publishers as too controversial and had to be printed privately. In a plain and direct manner Blackwell argued that there was no physiological necessity for a double standard of morality, but Victorian England and America were shocked by her position.
Blackwells' attention focused on economic and social reform in her pamphlet Christian Socialism (1882). In this document she called for a more just distribution of income, improved efficiency in government, workers' insurance, and the establishment of agrarian communities where women could play major roles.
Blackwell's autobiography, Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women (1895), provides a vivid picture of the challenges she faced in her moral crusade. In the closing chapter she wrote of her "hope for the future: the study of human nature by women as well as men commences that new and hopeful era of the intelligent co-operation of the sexes through which alone real progress can be attained and secured."
Essays in Medical Sociology (2 vols. 1892-1902).
The Blackwell family papers are in the Library of Congress and the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College. Letters from Elizabeth Blackwell to her friend Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon are in the Columbia University Library. Other letters and documents may be found in Fawcett Library, London; Sophia Smith Research Room, Smith College; Library of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Geneva, New York; Boston Public Library; New York Infirmary; Medical Library, St. Bartholomew's Hospital, London; Royal Free Medical School Library, London.
Fancourt, M., They Dared to Be Doctors: Elizabeth Blackwell, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1965). Felder, D. G., The 100 Most Influential Women of All Time: A Ranking Past and Present (1996). Flexner, E., Century of Struggle: The Woman's Rights Movement in the U.S. (1975). Hays, E. R., Those Extraordinary Blackwells (1967). Lovejoy, E. P., Women Doctors of the World (1957). Morantz-Sanchez, R. "Feminist Theory and Historical Practice: Rereading Elizabeth Blackwell" in Feminists Revision History (1994). Robinson, V., Pathfinders in Medicine (1929). Ross, I., Child of Destiny; The Life Story of the First Woman Doctor (1949). Sahli, N. A., Elizabeth Blackwell, M.D., 1821-1910: A Biography (1982). Shearer, B. F. and Shearer, B. S., ed., Notable Women in the Life Sciences: A Biographical Dictionary (1996). Walsh, M. R., Doctors Wanted: No Women Need Apply: Sexual Barriers in the Medical Profession, 1835-1975 (1977). Weprin, J. G., "The Young Elizabeth Blackwell: Why She Became the First Woman to Graduate from an American Medical School" (thesis, 1992). Wilson, D. C., Lone Woman (1970). Wright, M., Elizabeth Blackwell of Bristol: The First Woman Doctor (1995).
Elizabeth Blackwell: First Woman Doctor (video, 1997).
—JEAN M. WARD
Born: February 3, 1821
Died: May 31, 1910
English physician, educator, reformer, and women's rights activist
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 (1861–65), 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.
English American Physician and Medical Educator
Elizabeth Blackwell was a pioneer in opening the medical profession to women and served as an inspiration to generations of American girls. Although Blackwell is often described as the first woman doctor in America, this is not strictly true. Other women had practiced medicine and obstetrics, but Blackwell was the first woman in American history to earn a degree from an orthodox medical college.
Elizabeth Blackwell was born in Bristol, England, into a large, well-to-do family. When a fire destroyed her father's business in 1832, the family immigrated to America. Eventually, the Blackwells settled in Cincinnati, Ohio, where Samuel Blackwell died in 1838, leaving his widow with nine children and little money. The oldest girls supported the family by running a boarding school until their brothers established themselves in business. The Blackwells were interested in many social reform movements, including the abolitionist crusade, the women's rights movement, education for women, and the New England Transcendental Movement.
In her autobiography Elizabeth said that she decided to become a doctor after a woman friend, who was dying of a painful "female disease," told her that her suffering would have been mitigated if she could have seen a "lady doctor." Although many medical practitioners called themselves "doctor" after private studies or apprenticeships, Elizabeth was convinced that she must attend a legitimate medical college.
In 1847, when Blackwell began to apply to medical schools, none of the established medical schools admitted women. Many schools rejected her even though admission standards for nineteenth century medical schools were notoriously low. Some physicians suggested that she disguise herself as a man and enter medical school, but Blackwell saw her struggle as a moral crusade that had to win public approval. Finally, Geneva Medical College, New York, a small country school, accepted her. Being the only female at Geneva Medical College presented many difficulties, but Blackwell was able to persuade the professors that she should be allowed to attend all lectures and demonstrations. Blackwell's success did not convince the College to accept other female students. Indeed, Geneva Medical College rejected Elizabeth's sister Emily (1826-1910). (In 1854 Emily graduated from Cleveland Medical College.)
In 1849 Blackwell was awarded her diploma of Doctor of Medicine. Like many other American medical graduates, she went to Europe for further training and clinical experience. While she was treating a baby with an eye infection, some infectious fluid spurted into her eyes. This resulted in a serious infection and permanent damage to one eye. In England Blackwell met Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), who became a major influence on her ideas about sanitation and proper hospital administration.
Convinced that opportunities for women doctors in America were improving, Blackwell decided to settle in New York. In 1853 Blackwell began her battle to establish a dispensary and hospital where women physicians could obtain clinical experience while serving the poor. Her sister Emily and Dr. Maria Zakrzewska soon joined her. The New York Infirmary for Women and Children was a pioneering effort and the first time a hospital was conducted entirely by women. The hospital was needed because female medical graduates were denied essential hospital experience and instruction. In 1868 the Infirmary established a medical school for women. The Infirmary's school established strict entrance examinations and emphasized clinical training.
Elizabeth Blackwell served as one of the few role models available to American women interested in medical careers, but she refused to allow the Women's Rights Movement of her time to divert her from her crusade for women in the medical profession. She returned to England to continue the battle and, in 1859, became the first woman listed in the Medical Register of the United Kingdom. Her successes stimulated the work of Dr. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Dr. Sophia Jex-Blake (1840-1912), who established the London School of Medicine.
When Elizabeth Blackwell assessed the progress of women in medicine in 1869, she was entirely optimistic about the future. In 1899, convinced that special women's colleges were unnecessary, Emily Blackwell closed the Woman's Medical College of the New York Infirmary. Unfortunately, the 1890s proved to be a very brief "Golden Age" for women physicians.
LOIS N. MAGNER
Elizabeth Blackwell was born in England on February 3, 1821, and when she was twelve her parents emigrated with their nine children to New York City. Her father became an ardent supporter of the abolition movement (someone who wants to eliminate slavery ). In 1838, the Blackwells moved to Cincinnati, Ohio , but within a few months Blackwell's father died. 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, Kentucky . Local racial attitudes offended her strong abolitionist convictions, and she resigned at the end of the year. On her return to Cincinnati, a friend urged her to study medicine. The following year, Blackwell moved to Asheville, North Carolina , and later to Charleston, South Carolina , where she taught school and studied medicine in her spare time.
When her attempts to enroll in the medical schools of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania , and New York City were rejected, she wrote to a number of small northern colleges. In 1847, she was admitted to the Geneva Medical College in New York . Because women had never gone to medical school, all eyes were upon her, and Blackwell proved to be an outstanding student. In 1849, at the top of her class, she became the first woman to graduate from medical school; the event was highly publicized in the United States and Europe. Because no hospitals in the United States would hire her, she went to Paris, France, to work at a women's and children's hospital for further study and practical experience. While working with the children, she contracted a severe eye infection that left her blind in one eye.
Practice in the United States
Handicapped by partial blindness, 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 a private practice in a rented room, where her sister Emily, who had also pursued a medical career, soon joined her. Their modest practice later became the New York Infirmary and College for Women, operated by and for women. The Women's Medical College opened in November 1868, adjacent to the New York Infirmary, with Blackwell as professor of hygiene. It was the first school devoted entirely to the medical education of women.
During the Civil War (1861–65), she organized a unit of women nurses for field service. The army at this time had no hospital units. This association soon became the U.S. Sanitary Aid Commission, officially appointed by President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65).
In 1869, Blackwell set up practice in London and continued her efforts to open the medical profession to women. Her articles and her autobiography attracted widespread attention. From 1875 to 1907, she was a professor at the London School of Medicine for Women. She died at her home in Hastings in 1910.
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.
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). □