Life Story: Elizabeth Blackwell2021-02-11T11:27:49-05:00

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Life Story: Elizabeth Blackwell (1821–1910)

American Medical Pioneer

The story of the first woman to graduate from a U.S. medical college.

Elizabeth Blackwell

[Elizabeth Blackwell, 1821-1910, oval bust, wearing wedding veil], ca. 1877. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

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Elizabeth Blackwell was born in Bristol, England, on February 3, 1821. Her father, Samuel, owned a sugar refinery, and her mother, Hannah, cared for the home and nine children. Not everyone believed in educating girls at the time, but Hannah and Samuel did. So Elizabeth received an excellent education from private tutors. When she was 11 years old, her father’s refinery burned down, and the Blackwell family moved to New York. There they became involved in the abolitionist and women’s rights movements. A few years later, they moved again, this time to Cincinnati, Ohio. 

Elizabeth was 17 years old when her father died, leaving their family very poor. In the antebellum period, teaching was one of the only career paths available to women, so Elizabeth worked as a teacher to support her family. In 1844, she took a teaching job in Kentucky, where she witnessed the horrors of slavery firsthand. She returned to Cincinnati after only six months and vowed to find some way to make the world a better place.

When Elizabeth was in her mid-20s, her close friend died after a long illness. Before she died, the friend told Elizabeth that she would have suffered less if she had been able to see a woman doctor. Elizabeth decided to dedicate herself to becoming a doctor and helping women get quality medical care. She studied medicine privately for a few years before applying to Geneva Medical College. Because she was a woman, the college viewed her application as absurd, but allowed the all-male student body to vote on whether she should be accepted. The students voted “yes” as a joke, and Elizabeth became a medical student.

Although her presence may have been a joke to her classmates, Elizabeth took the opportunity very seriously. She persisted through mistreatment by students, staff, and patients, all of whom wanted to discourage her from following her plan. In 1849, she became the first woman to graduate from a U.S. medical college.    

After graduation, Elizabeth traveled to London and Paris to continue her studies. She focused on the care of women and children. While treating an infant, she contracted a disease that left her blind in one eye. This ended her ambition to become a surgeon, and she returned to New York City to open a private practice.

Prejudice against women doctors kept Elizabeth’s private practice from becoming a success, so in 1853 she opened a clinic called the New York Dispensary for Women and Children. This clinic was the first place that offered poor women and children the chance to see a woman physician. Elizabeth’s sister Emily, who had followed in her footsteps and become a surgeon, joined her at the clinic in 1856. 

She founded the Women’s Central Association of Relief (WCAR) on April 25, 1861.

In 1857, Elizabeth and her sister teamed up with a third female physician named Marie Zakrzewska to open the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. This new hospital provided poor women and children with quality medical care, and gave female doctors and medical students a safe place to learn and practice medicine. Despite public opposition to the idea of a hospital run entirely by women, it became a big success.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, there was a huge surge of women volunteering to help the war effort by raising money, making supplies, and nursing. Elizabeth recognized the incredible potential of all this enthusiasm and set out to organize and professionalize these efforts. She founded the Women’s Central Association of Relief (WCAR) on April 25, 1861. The WCAR had three goals. First, the group wanted to organize women’s charity efforts and promote the creation of more. Second, they wanted to establish a working relationship with the U.S. military so they could directly respond to the changing needs of the army. Finally, they wanted to select and train women as professional nurses who could be hired to work in military hospitals. The education and training of women nurses was especially important to Elizabeth. She believed the war was an opportunity for women to assert themselves as respectable medical professionals. 

The WCAR asked Reverend Henry Bellows to travel to Washington, D.C., on their behalf and make the connections they would need to accomplish their goals. While there, Bellows met Dorothea Dix. Dorothea Dix was a medical activist like Elizabeth, but she thought that nursing was a natural extension of women’s domestic responsibilities. She believed nurses should be volunteers, not paid professionals like Elizabeth wanted. Dorothea’s vision was more appealing to male organizers, who wanted to preserve male dominance in the medical field. 

In June of 1861, the U.S. government established the U.S. Sanitary Commission (USSC), a private agency that would oversee all efforts to support wounded and sick soldiers. Henry Bellows was made president, and he appointed Dorothea to be the Superintendent of Women Nurses. Elizabeth and the WCAR were sidelined because their vision of professionalizing women’s work was deemed too radical. Even with this setback, they continued to work with the USSC to improve conditions and provide relief at the war front.

After the war, Elizabeth continued to promote the inclusion of women in medicine. She established the Women’s Medical College at the New York Infirmary in 1867. Her school was groundbreaking because it provided a place where women could get a comprehensive medical education without encountering constant prejudice and resistance. The New York Infirmary hospital and college operated for more than a century.

Elizabeth moved to London a few years after opening the Women’s Medical College and retired from medicine completely in the late 1870s. She continued to be an advocate for reform and a champion for women in medicine until her death in 1910.  

Vocabulary

  • abolition: The movement to end slavery in the U.S.  
  • antebellum: Before the American Civil War.
  • sugar refinery: A factory that processed raw sugar into refined white sugar.

Discussion Questions

  • Why did Elizabeth decide to become a doctor?
  • What challenges did Elizabeth face in her efforts to become a doctor?
  • Why were Elizabeth and the WCAR sidelined in the war relief efforts? What does their story reveal about attitudes toward women during the Civil War?
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Themes

SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND MEDICINE

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