Elizabeth was a passionate activist for poor women’s health and was the first woman to graduate from medical school in the United States. In this second instalment of the Women Who Got Us Where We Are series, we will delve into the incredible and inspiring life of Elizabeth Blackwell and all of her achievements.
Elizabeth was born on the 3rd of February 1821 in Bristol, England. In 1832 she moved to New York with her family after her father lost his most profitable sugar refinery in a fire.
Early on, a medical career was her idea of a nightmare. She was put off from a career in science as a result of her school teacher using the dissection of a bull’s eye to teach the class about the anatomy of the eye and vision.
After leaving school she became a teacher, but this path didn’t last long. When Elizabeth’s close friend fell ill this sparked something inside her, and she remarked that had a female doctor treated her friend, she might not have suffered so much. This prompted her to apply to numerous medical schools, during which she exposed herself to the prejudice against her sex that would persevere throughout her career.
The advice offered for her medical school application was to either go to Paris to study and not apply to American Schools or to take up a disguise as a man to study medicine. The rejections she received were based on the fact that 1. she was a woman and therefore intellectually inferior and 2. she might actually prove equal to the task, prove to be competition, and that she could not expect them to “furnish her with a stick to break our heads with”.
Amongst these numerous rejections, she heard back from Geneva Medical College in Syracuse, New York. The deal and faculty who were responsible for reviewing applicants were unable to make a decision due to the unique nature of Elizabeth’s application. Their solution was to present the issue to 150 of the current male medical students and let them vote on the matter, and if even one of them objected, then Elizabeth would be turned away. The male students, however, voted unanimously to accept her.
Apparently, the students thought the request was a joke and could be why they decided to let her in, and they were surprised when Elizabeth arrived and was keen to learn how to heal. The medical students at the time were known for being boisterous and rude, and for announcing crude jokes during class. While Elizabeth was in class, the legend goes, her male counterparts calmed down and became the most well behaved and studious medical students the college had ever known.
When she started medical school in 1847, she officially became the first woman to attend medical school in the United States. Throughout her time at medical school, she was presented with numerous suitors and proposals, but preferring to focus on school she rejected them.
In the summers between classes she worked hard to try and gain some clinical experience. This wasn’t without its challenges, as many resident physicians would walk out and refuse to assist her in diagnosing and treating her patients, or the patients would refuse to be examined by her.
Her thesis was deemed by the medical community as very feminine, portraying a strong sense of empathy and sensitivity to human suffering, as well as strong advocacy for economic and social justice. The paper was on typhoid fever and the concluding marks in her thesis linked physical health with socio-moral stability. This was published shortly after she graduated, and was the first medical article published by a female student for the United States.
When she graduated in 1849, it was such a big deal that the press came to report on her graduation, and the Dean of the University bowed to Elizabeth when he presented her degree.
After college, she moved to Paris where she worked in a maternity hospital. Unfortunately, whilst working here, contaminated fluid squirted into her eye, which resulted in losing sight in her left eye, and consequently it had to be surgically removed. This left her unable to pursue becoming a surgeon, which was her goal – but this didn’t slow her down.
In 1857 she founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children and began giving lectures to female audiences on the importance of educating girls. She did this with the help of her sister Emily (who became the second woman in the US to get a medical degree).
When the American Civil War broke out, Elizabeth set up with Woman’s Central Relief Association (WCRA) which worked against the lack of coordination for medical help.
In 1868 a medical college for women adjacent to the infirmary was created, founded on Elizabeth’s innovative ideas about medical education. The students took part in a four-year training period with a much more extensive clinical training programme than other schools.
Elizabeth established a woman’s medical school in London in 1874, the London School of Medicine for Women. However, only three years after this school was set up Elizabeth resigned from her position, and ultimately ended her medical career, but she remained there until 1907 as a professor of gynaecology. After her retirement, Elizabeth became involved with numerous reform movements, in a wide variety of causes. During this time she became very close friends with Florence Nightingale, and they even discussed opening and running a hospital together.
Elizabeth Blackwell died on 31 May 1910, aged 89, after she fell down a flight of stairs which left her almost completely mentally and physically disabled, and she suffered a stroke consequently.
She is best remembered for being the first woman to receive an M.D degree in the US, however, her life was full of other incredible successes. Working tirelessly throughout her life to secure equality for all members of the medical profession, and creating many innovative health schemes. Even though we still have a long way to go to secure some sense of equality, Elizabeth fought and succeeded: in 1881, there were only 25 female doctors registered in England and Wales, but by 1911 there were 495. In this case, a huge win for the medical community, and one which carries on today as more women train in the medical profession.