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.
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