Elizabeth Blackwell, First Female Physician
Elizabeth Blackwell, First Female Physician
Valedictory Address to the Graduating Class of Geneva Medical College at the Public Commencement
By: Charles Alfred Lee
Date: January 23, 1849
Source: Charles Alfred Lee. Valedictory Address to the Graduating Class of Geneva Medical College at the public commencement, January 23, 1849, Published by request of the class Buffalo: Jewett Thomas, 1849. The selection includes an important footnote, included in the published version, that Lee did not mention at the ceremony.
About the Author: As Dean of the Faculty of Geneva Medical College from 1847 to 1853, Charles Alfred Lee, a physician, presented the valediction at the world's first conferral of a regular medical degree upon a woman.
Elizabeth Blackwell was born in Bristol, England, on February 3, 1821, and immigrated with her family to America in 1832 when her father's sugar business collapsed. In her 20s, she earned her living as a schoolteacher, mostly in poverty, and studied medicine on her own with the support of a few open-minded physicians in Asheville, North Carolina, in Charleston, South Carolina, and in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Liberal Quaker physicians in Philadelphia urged her to apply to medical school to break the gender barrier in medicine.
The faculty of one of these schools, Geneva Medical College in upstate New York, decided to curry favor among the students by leaving the presumed rejection of Blackwell's application to them, stipulating that their decision must be unanimous. The assembled students preferred to play a practical joke on the faculty and admit her, which they did after physically persuading the lone holdout. The faculty found itself honor-bound to allow Blackwell to enroll for the fall term in 1847.
Blackwell's presence civilized her rowdy classmates; her superior intellect shamed them into becoming serious students; and her humility inspired them to do their best. They soon recognized that she was more qualified than most of the men. She consistently ranked at the head of her class. She was not the first woman to practice medicine, hold an M.D. degree, or be recognized as a physician, but on January 23, 1849, she became the first woman in the world to earn a regular M.D. degree from an accredited medical school by satisfying the normal requirements of a full course of study.
An event connected with the proceedings of this day deserves some notice on this occasion, calculated as it is to excite curiosity and comment, and to be held up as an example for other institutions to imitate or condemn. I mean the conferring of the degree of M.D. upon one of that sex which is generally supposed to be wanting in the physical, if not moral qualifications necessary for the successful practice of the Healing Art. So far as I am informed, this is the first instance, in this country, or any other, where a female has graduated in medicine, after having gone through the regular prescribed course and term of study; and in the present instance, it is my duty to add, without the omission, or the slighting of any branch of study, and that too, in so thorough a manner, as to leave nothing unattempted, or unattained, which it is necessary for one to know, who expects to practice with honor and success in every department of our profession.
Such an instance of self-sacrificing devotion to science; of perseverance under difficulties, and obstacles next to insurmountable—of unremitting, unrelaxing toil, in pursuit of that knowledge, so important to, and yet so rarely possessed by her sex—and all this for the purpose of mitigating human misery, relieving the sick, and extending her sphere of usefulness in the world, this, I say, deserves as it will receive, the heart-felt approbation of every generous and humane mind. This event will stand forth hereafter as a memorable example of what woman can undertake and accomplish, too, when stimulated by the love of science and a noble spirit of philanthropy. Why should medical science be monopolized by us alone? Why should woman be prohibited from fulfilling her mission as a ministering angel to the sick, furnished not only with the softer and kindlier attributes of her sex, but with all the appliances and resources of science? If she feels called to this life of toil and responsibility, and gives evidence of her qualifications for such a calling, in humanity's name, let her take her rank among the disciples of Aësculapius, and be honored for her self-sacrificing choice. Such cases must ever be too few, to disturb the existing relations of society, or excite any other feeling on our part than admiration at the heroism displayed, and sympathy, for the sufferings voluntarily assumed! God speed her, then, in her errand of mercy, and crown her efforts with abundant success!∗
∗Since the above discourse was delivered, an article has appeared in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, condemning in very severe terms, the conduct of the Faculty of Geneva College, in allowing Miss B. admission to their courses of lectures, and of the Trustees in conferring upon her the degree of M.D.
The writer, while he acknowledges the validity of the argument, so far as it is founded on the general physical disqualifications of the sex for the medical profession, and the incompatibility of its duties, with those properly belonging to the female portion of society, believes, nevertheless, that instances occasionally happen, where females display such a combination of moral, physical, and intellectual qualifications for discharging creditably and skillfully the duties belonging to our calling, that it would seem equally unwise and unjust, to withhold from them those advantages and those honors, which are open to nearly all others, whether deserving of them or not. While he holds this opinion, he at the same time feels bound to say, that the inconveniences attending the admission of females to all the lectures in a medical school, are so great, that he will feel compelled on all future occasions, to oppose such a practice, although by so doing, he may be subjected to the charge of inconsistency.
The leading American medical journal of the era, the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, which later became the New England Journal of Medicine, reported the facts of Blackwell's graduation, without editorializing, in an anonymous announcement, "Doctress in Medicine," on February 7, 1849. Reaction was swift and almost entirely negative. The journal published two pseudonymous attacks, "The Late Medical Degree to a Female" by "D. K." on February 21, 1849, and "The Late Medical Degree at Geneva" by "Justus." on February 28. As "D. K." is pronounced like the Greek dikê, both pseudonyms are puns on the word "justice."
D. K.'s main argument was that a woman's entry into the medical profession was unnatural and unnecessary. Not as vitriolic as D. K., Justus admitted D. K.'s point that womankind is generally unfit for medicine, but argued that occasionally some women are called to it. He suggested that the profession should find places for "masculine women" as obstetricians and gynecologists. Lee's opinion that Blackwell should be both the first and the last woman physician was between D. K.'s conservative and Justus's somewhat liberal points of view. Among the other arguments then put forth against women in medicine were that they were physiologically, psychologically, and morally incapable of functioning objectively under the rigors of clinical practice; that their brains were smaller and therefore, they were not intelligent enough; that dealing with medical issues threatened their delicacy and offended their modesty; and that their appearance as professionals outside the home undermined the ethical fabric of society.
Blackwell could not find an internship in the United States, so she went to Europe for postgraduate medical training, first at La Maternité in Paris, then at St. Bartholomew's in London. Her dream of becoming a surgeon ended in November 1849 in Paris, when an accidental infection from a pediatric case of purulent ophthalmia blinded her left eye. She then turned toward the social aspects of medicine, building her career on writing, teaching, administration, and reform. Blackwell shuttled across the Atlantic for two decades before settling in her native England in 1869. Besides being the first woman doctor in America, she was also, by virtue of being listed in the British Medical Register in 1858, the first in Great Britain. She established a small practice in London and taught gynecology at the London School of Medicine for Women from 1875 until she retired in 1907. She died at home in Hastings, England, on May 31, 1910.
The earliest women doctors struggled to find patients. Men refused to see them and women were at first reluctant. Only after the success of such ventures as Elizabeth Blackwell's and Marie Elizabeth Zakrzewska's New York Infirmary and Dispensary for Women and Children, founded in 1857, and Zakrzewska's New England Hospital for Women and Children, founded in 1862, did women patients begin to recognize the benefits of having women physicians on the staffs of hospitals and clinics. The advent of female physicians allowed medicine to overcome the uneasiness of male delicacy and modesty in the presence of female bodies and thus provided more thorough, more compassionate, and more empathetic health care for female patients. By 2005, roughly half of all students in medical schools in the United States were female.
Blackwell, Elizabeth. Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women: Autobiographical Sketches. London: Longmans, 1895.
Boyd, Julia. The Excellent Doctor Blackwell: The Life of the First Female Physician. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton, 2005.
Hays, Elinor Rice. Those Extraordinary Blackwells: The Story of a Journey to a Better World. New York: Harcourt, 1967.
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