Elizabeth Blackwell Biography

(First Woman Medical Graduate)

Birthday: February 3, 1821 (Aquarius)

Born In: Bristol

Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to receive a medical degree from an American medical school, and also the first woman on the British medical register. She was ardently anti-abortion and pro-woman, choosing to enter the field of medicine partly because she was disgusted that the term “female physician” was applied to abortionists. As a child she was exposed to liberal thinking as the Blackwell family believed in movements to abolish slavery and enfranchise women. Most of the colleges she applied rejected her two reasons: she was a woman and therefore incapable of handling a medical profession or because they felt threatened by her competitive spirit. She was eventually accepted by Geneva Medical College in New York. On completion of her course, she went to Paris to gain some practice there. She returned to America to broaden her dispensary as the New York Infirmary for Women and Children with her sister Emily, America’s second female physician, and their friend Dr. Marie Zakrzewska. The Infirmary was the first American hospital staffed by women, providing medical training and experience for women doctors as well as care for the poor. Blackwell returned to England permanently, where she established a private practice, helped organize the National Health Society, and became professor of gynecology at the London School of Medicine for Women.
Quick Facts

Died At Age: 89


father: Samuel Blackwell

mother: Hannah Blackwell

siblings: Anna, Ellen, Emily, George, Henry, Howard, Marian, Samuel

Feminists American Women

Died on: May 31, 1910

place of death: Hastings

More Facts

education: Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Bedford College, St Bartholomew's Hospital, Geneva Medical

Childhood & Early Life
Elizabeth Blackwell was born in a house on Dickson Street in Bristol, England, to Samuel Blackwell, a sugar refiner and his wife Hannah (Lane) Blackwell. She was third of the nine siblings.
Her childhood was a happy one as her father had liberal views on childrearing and believed that every child should be given opportunity for development of his or her talent.
A fire in his sugar refinery destroyed it and Samuel decided to shift to Cincinnati, but he died soon after in 1838 leaving a widow, nine children and great deal of debt.
The sisters started a school, The Cincinnati English and French Academy for Young Ladies, to help tide over their financial situation. Elizabeth’ interest in Unitarian Church was not acceptable to the conservative Cincinnati community.
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By 1845, she decided on a medical career and in order to save money for medical school expense, she taught music at an academy in Asheville, North Carolina, and lodged with Rev. John Dickson, a physician turned clergyman.
In 1847, she left for Philadelphia and New York, to explore the opportunities for medical study. In Philadelphia, she boarded with Dr. William Elder, and studied anatomy privately but her applications were rejected.
In 1847, Blackwell was accepted as a medical student by Geneva Medical College, New York quite accidentally as students thought it was a joke when they were asked to vote on her admission.
When Dr. James Webster, the anatomy professor asked her to absent herself during lectures on reproduction, her response made Webster to admit her to the lecture and the subject was no longer considered vulgar.
In between her two terms at Geneva, she returned to Philadelphia, and applied for medical positions to gain clinical experience. The Guardians of the Poor that administered Blockley Almshouse, permitted her, reluctantly.
Appalled by the syphilitic ward and those afflicted with typhus at Blockwell, she wrote her graduating thesis on the topic of typhus and linked physical health with socio-moral stability.
In January 1849, she became the first woman to achieve a medical degree in the United States. When the dean, Dr. Charles Lee, conferred her degree, he stood up and bowed to her.
In June 1849, she enrolled at La Maternite; in Paris not as physician but as a student midwife. She met Dr. Hippolyte Blot, a young resident physician and profited from his mentorship.
In November 1849, she accidently spurted some contaminated solution into her eye while treating an infant, which resulted in an infection and she lost her left eye and all the hope of becoming a surgeon.
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In 1851, she returned to the U.S to establish her own practice in New York and later established a small dispensary near Tompkins Square
In 1857, she along with her sister Emily now a qualified doctor, and Dr. Zakrzewska, expanded the dispensary into the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children.
In 1858, under a clause in the Medical Act 1858 she was able to become the first woman in England to have her name entered on the General Medical Council's medical register.
Following a rift with Emily, she left for England and in 1874 opened the London School of Medicine for Women, with the primary goal of preparing women for the licensing exam of Apothecaries Hall.
At the school, she lost much of her authority to Jex-Blake, and was relegated to being a lecturer in midwifery. She resigned this position and retired from her medical career in 1877.
Major Works
In 1852, she published ‘The Laws of Life with Special Reference to the Physical Education of Girls’. The book was about the physical and mental development of girls and with the preparation of young women for motherhood.
She campaigned against the Contagious Diseases Acts and her 1878 essay, ‘Counsel to Parents on the Moral Education of their Children’, was unequivocal on prostitution and marriage, arguing against the Contagious Diseases Acts.
Personal Life & Legacy
Elizabeth Blackwell never married for she prized her independence and rejected many suitors. In 1856, she adopted Katherine "Kitty" Barry, an orphan and raised her as a half-servant, half-daughter.
She was well connected and exchanged letters with Lady Byron about women’s rights issues and was a close friend with Florence Nightingale with whom she discussed opening a hospital together.
She died at her home in Hastings, England and her ashes were buried in the graveyard of St Munn's Parish Church, Kilmun, Scotland. The Lancet and The British Medical Journal carried obituaries honoring her.
Since 1949, the American Medical Women's Association gives the Elizabeth Blackwell Medal to a woman physician. Hobart and William Smith Colleges present the Elizabeth Blackwell Award to women for outstanding service to humankind
The first woman to receive a medical degree, she declared, “If society will not admit of woman's free development, then society must be remodeled”.

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