By Pamela D. Toler
Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in the world to earn a Medical School degree, overcoming challenges imposed by a male-dominated establishment every step of the way. She determined she would not be the last.
Born in England in 1821, Elizabeth Blackwell immigrated to the United States with her family while still a child. They settled in Cincinnati, Ohio. When her father died in 1837, Blackwell, her mother and two sisters were forced to support themselves. With few options available to women at that time, they transformed their home into a boarding school.
Young Elizabeth disliked teaching. Then, a family friend, Mary Donaldson, made a shocking suggestion: why not study medicine? Donaldson was very ill, dying from what was probably uterine cancer. She confided in her young friend that she wished to be cared for by a female doctor. If only there were any!
In early 19th century America, aspiring doctors typically apprenticed with established doctors for several years before attending medical school or opening a practice. Elizabeth sought out an experienced physician who was willing to teach her despite her gender. After two years as an apprentice, she moved to Philadelphia then the center of medical study in the United States. But 29 medical schools refused to admit her. One advisor, trying to be helpful, suggested she attend his classes in Philadelphia disguised as a man -- a solution she rejected.
Finally, Geneva Medical College in upstate New York accepted her as a student. But her acceptance was a fluke. While in Philadelphia, Blackwell impressed a famous physician, Dr. Joseph Warrington, who recommended her to Geneva. The school’s administrators didn’t want to accept a woman but neither did they wish to upset Dr. Warrington. They decided to put it to a vote and let their students determine whether to admit her, sure the young men would reject the idea outright. But believing the application a joke perpetrated by a rival medical school, the students unanimously voted to admit Blackwell to the administrators’ horror. In January 1849, after only one year of study, she graduated first in her class, at the age of 28.
Blackwell ran into similar obstacles in Paris, France, where she next sought clinical instruction that was unavailable in American medical schools. A male-dominated medical establishment hostile to the idea of female doctors refused her permission to attend clinical demonstrations. Once again, well-intentioned men suggested she simply sneak in dressed as a man.
Pierre Louis, a French physician now known for establishing the science of epidemiology and the modern clinical trial, suggested she enroll in La Maternité, then the world’s leading maternity hospital and training school for midwives. Blackwell would have preferred studying surgery in the famous Paris hospitals, but at La Maternité she gained more practical experience in obstetrics in a shorter time than she could anywhere else.
Blackwell resettled in New York in the summer of 1851, after several months study in London. She soon discovered that earning her medical degree was easy compared to developing her medical practice. She was not allowed to work in the city’s hospitals, not even the women’s wards. And because many people believed “female doctor” was a euphemism for abortionist, landlords would not rent her office space. She even received anonymous hate mail.
Finally she started a dispensary on New York’s Lower East Side. It would evolve to become the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, operating under three goals:
to provide medical treatment to women and children by women physicians,
to give clinical instruction to female medical students, and
to train nurses.
Blackwell's success, determination, and degree, however, did not immediately open doors for other women. The newly established American Medical Association censured Geneva Medical College for admitting a female student. The school refused to accept any more, including Elizabeth’s younger sister Emily.* That's when Blackwell took matters into her own hands.
In 1868, Blackwell opened her own medical school for women, the Women's Medical College of the New York Infirmary, with 17 students and 11 teachers. She emphasized strict entrance qualifications, clinical instruction, and final exams. As a result, the education her students received was better than that offered by most US medical colleges for men.
In July 1869, Blackwell turned the Women's Medical College over to Emily and returned to England, where she helped found the London School of Medicine for Women. She taught there for the rest of her life.
When Blackwell died in 1910, there were 7399 women doctors in the US alone. For her efforts to pioneer careers for women in Science and Medicine, we are proud to honor Elizabeth Blackwell as a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero.
*Emily eventually earned her degree at what is now Case Western University. She was the third woman to receive a medical degree in the United States.
Armed with a PhD in history, a well-thumbed deck of library cards, and a large bump of curiosity, author, speaker, and historian, Pamela D. Toler translates history for a popular audience. She goes beyond the familiar boundaries of American history to tell stories from other parts of the world as well as history from the other side of the battlefield, the gender line, or the color bar. Toler is the author of eight books of popular history for children and adults. Her newest book, Women Warriors: An Unexpected History is due out February, 2019. Her work has appeared in Aramco World, Calliope, History Channel Magazine, MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History and Time.com. For more information, go to https://www.historyinthemargins.com/ or https://www.pameladtoler.com/
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