Elizabeth Blackwell, born in 1821, was the first woman
doctor in the United States. She was also the first woman to be entered into the
Physicians’ Register in the UK.
She was born in Bristol, England in 1821. At that time it was
not common for girls to receive a proper education. They were taught good
manners and useful household and social skills. They were not considered as
anything more than homemakers. Elizabeth Blackwell’s father, Samuel Blackwell,
had different views. He thought girls should receive the same education as boys.
Elizabeth, her four sisters and her four brothers all received the same,
Samuel Blackwell was against the Church in England. He also
suffered business losses. He decided that he should move with his family to
America. In 1832, the family immigrated to America. The entire family became
involved in the abolitionist movement. They even hid escaping slaves in their
home. Samuel Blackwell was unable to make much money. By the time he died, in
1838, there was very little left for his family to live on. Elizabeth, along
with two of her sisters, started a small private school for girls, to help bring
Elizabeth was interested in becoming a doctor. She was
convinced that women would rather see a female, than a male, about their health
problems. She studied medicine, privately, while teaching. At the same time she
applied to medical school. Over twenty medical schools rejected her. It was
unthinkable for a woman to become a doctor. Elizabeth didn’t give up her
dream, though. Finally, she was accepted by Geneva Medical School, New York, in
1847. It was supposed to be a joke. The male students were asked to vote on
whether she should be allowed in or not. They voted yes because they thought she
could never succeed, and they would teach her a lesson. Elizabeth didn’t see
it that way. She studied hard and graduated first in her class, receiving her
degree in 1849.
She returned to Pennsylvania and worked in the hospitals
there. During that time she became a naturalized US citizen. She wanted to
become a surgeon, and traveled to Paris hoping to train with the great surgeons
there. Again she was refused admission to the medical community. Instead she
enrolled in the Midwifery School. She attended to women and sick infants. She
accidentally infected her own left eye while treating a baby with a severe eye
infection. This resulted in the loss of her eye that was later replaced with a
glass eye. She also lost all hope of becoming a surgeon.
She then moved onto London and trained under Sir James Paget.
All of her training could not get her a job in a private practice in the States.
No man was going to take in a woman associate. Since she couldn’t get into an
established practice she decided to set up her own, with her sister Emily. Emily
was following Elizabeth into medicine. She was having an even harder time than
Elizabeth finding a college that would accept her.
Elizabeth rented a house and set up her private practice in
it. She slowly began to get patients. Two years later she opened a dispensary
for poor women and children in a slum area of Manhattan. Emily eventually
graduated from medial school and joined Elizabeth. Together they opened the New
York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. Many other newly graduate women
doctors did their training there.
In 1958, Elizabeth returned to England. She became the first
woman to be entered on the Physicians’ Register there. She gave lectures on
education reform, and inspired Elizabeth Garrett Anderson to take up medicine.
Garrett Anderson was a pioneer of women doctors in England. She opened a
hospital like the one Elizabeth Blackwell had opened in New York. That hospital
remained open until very recently (about 1980).
Elizabeth returned to America just in time to see the
beginnings of the Civil War. Elizabeth and Emily helped train nurses for the
Union Army. Elizabeth was appointed head of the Sanitary Commission by President
Lincoln. At the beginning of the Civil War very little was understood about
hygiene and how it affected health. Elizabeth was one of the first to understand
how hygiene helped prevent the spread of infection. In 1868 the Women’s
Medical College opened in New York, next to the Infirmary. Elizabeth was
Professor of Hygiene.
She decided that women were well established in American
medical circles and turned her attentions to England, once again. She moved back
to England, becoming a Professor of Gynecology there. She died in 1910, at the
age of 89 in Hastings, England. By the
time she died female doctors were accepted in England and the United States. The
Women’s Medical College had closed as regular colleges were accepting female
students. There were 7,000 female doctors in the States. She had paved the way for them