The First Female Physician in the United States

The First Female Named in the United Kingdom Medical Register

     Dr. Blackwell was the first, openly identified, woman to graduate from medical school. She is also recognized as a pioneer in educating women in medicine in the United  States, and was prominent in the emerging women's rights movement.  

Dr. Elizabeth BlackwellCredit: Corbis

     Elizabeth Blackwell was born in Bristol, England on February 3, 1821 and was the third of nine children born to sugar refiner, Samuel Blackwell and his wife, Hannah (née Lane). The Blackwells, devout Quakers, believed that all people are created equal in the Eyes of God and therefore considered that all of their children should be educated equally as well. 

     Samuel could afford to give his numerous children an education and as per his beliefs had his sons and daughters equally taught by private tutors at home.  Because he was  considered a "dissenter", his children or rather his sons were denied access to public schools. Hannah Blackwell inspired her children through the arts, music, and literature.

     The family emigrated to the United States in 1832, when Elizabeth was 12 years old, (a fire had destroyed the family business) and set up a sugar refinery in New York City.  Again, being devout Quakers, the Blackwells did not believe in slavery and Samuel became quite involved in the abolitionist movement to end slavery in America.

    The New York City refinery was abandoned in favor of an opportunity presented to Samuel Blackwell whereby he would be allowed to open a refinery in Ohio and slaves would not be needed to harvest the sugar. The Blackwells then moved to Cincinnati, Ohio in 1838. 

    Three months after this move, Samuel Blackwell contracted biliary fever and died, leaving the family unprovided for as he had lost much of his wealth in  New York during 1837 when the economy faltered.  The three oldest girls operated a boarding school for young women and supported the family for several years.

     During her growing up years Elizabeth Blackwell had lost several of her sisters and 2 of her brothers, as well as her father, leaving one to suspect these experiences led her into the life of medicine.

     After the death of her father, in 1842, Elizabeth took up a career in teaching in Henderson, Kentucky to make money to pay for medical school. Blackwell found this work unpleasant due to the racist atmosphere which offended her strong abolitionist beliefs and she resigned at the end of the year.

     On her return to Cincinnati, a friend who had undergone treatment for a gynecological disorder told Elizabeth that if a woman doctor had treated her, she would have been spared an embarrassing ordeal. She also urged Elizabeth to study medicine.

     At first Blackwell disregarded the idea of becoming a doctor. But eventually her ideas changed, and the thought of becoming a doctor turned into an obsession. Friends discouraged her though, and even recommended that if she chose to study medicine, her best choice was to move to France and disguise herself as a man. They told her that only then would she be accepted into medical school.

     Elizabeth became even more active in the anti-slavery movement as did her brother, Henry Brown Blackwell, who married Lucy Stone, a suffragist. Another brother, Samuel Charles Blackwell, married another important figure in women's rights, Antoinette Brown.

     Desiring to apply herself to the practice of medicine, in 1845, she went to Asheville, North Carolina, where she lived and read medicine in the home of Dr. John Dickson whilst taking a teaching position. Afterwards, she read with his brother, Dr. Samuel Henry Dickson, in Charleston, South Carolina in 1846.

     In 1847, Elizabeth finally attended Geneva Medical College in New York.  This was after being rejected by twenty-nine different schools of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and New York City.  

     She was finally accepted at Geneva — supposedly because the faculty put it to a student vote. After an initial rejection, (the students thought her application a hoax or practical joke because no woman had ever applied for medical training before) Elizabeth gained admittance and braved the prejudice of some of  the professors and students to complete her training.

     One can only imagine that all eyes were upon the young woman whom many regarded as immoral or simply mad.

     At first Blackwell was even barred from attending classroom demonstrations. Soon, however, Blackwell's quiet personality and hard work won over her classmates and teaching staff.

     Her graduation in 1849 was highly publicized on both sides of the Atlantic.

     Blackwell is said to have stated that if the instructor was upset by the fact that Student No. 156 wore a bonnet, she would be pleased to remove her conspicuous headgear and take a seat at the rear of the classroom, but that she would not voluntarily absent herself from a lecture.

     On January 11th, 1849, Blackwell became the first woman to achieve a medical degree in the United States, and graduated on January 23rd, 1849.

     Banned from practice in most hospitals, she was advised to go to Paris, France and train at La Maternité Hospital for further study and practical experience, but had to continue her training as a student midwife, not a physician. While she was there, her training was cut short when in November of 1849 she caught a serious right eye infection, purulent ophthalmia or purulent conjunctivitis, from a baby she was treating. She had to have her right eye removed and replaced with a glass eye.

     This loss of her right eye brought to an end her hopes of becoming a surgeon.

     Handicapped by partial blindness, Dr. Blackwell gave up her ambition to become a surgeon and began practice at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London. In 1851 she returned to New York City, where she applied for several positions as a physician, but was rejected because she was a woman.

     In 1853, Blackwell along with her sister Emily, (who had also studied medicine) and Dr. Marie Zakrzewska, founded their own infirmary, The New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, in a single room dispensary near Tompkins Square in Manhattan. This later, in 1868, became the New York Infirmary and College for Women operated by and for women and whose mission it was to train women as physicians and nurses.  Dr. Blackwell also continued to fight for the admission of women to medical schools.

      During the American Civil War, (1861 - 1865) Blackwell trained many women and organized a unit of female field doctors and nurses and sent them to the Union Army. Many women were interested and received training at this time.

     In 1857, Blackwell returned to England where she attended Bedford College for Women in London for one year.

     In 1858, under a clause in the Medical Act of 1858 that recognized doctors with foreign degrees practicing in Britain before 1858, she was able to become the first woman to have her name entered on the General Medical Council's medical register on  January 1st, 1859.

     In 1869, she left her sister, Emily, in charge of the college and returned to England. There, with Florence Nightingale, she opened the "Women's Medical College". Blackwell taught at London School of Medicine for Women, which she had co-founded, and accepted a Chair in Gynecology from 1875 to 1907. She retired a year later.

     During her retirement, Blackwell still maintained her interest in the women's rights movement by writing lectures and articles on the importance of education.

     Blackwell is credited with opening the first training school for nurses in the United States in 1873. She also published books about diseases and proper hygiene.

     She was an early outspoken opponent of circumcision and in 1894 said that "Parents, should be warned that this ugly mutilation of their children involves serious danger, both to their physical and moral health."

     She was a proponent of women's rights and opposed to abortion. Her female education guide was published in Spain, as was her autobiography in 1895 which attracted a national audience.

     In 1856, she adopted Katherine "Kitty" Barry, an orphan of Irish origin, who was her companion for the rest of her life.

     In 1907 Blackwell was injured in a fall from which she never fully recovered.

     She died on May 31st, 1910 at her home in Hastings in East Sussex after a stroke at the age of 89. She was buried in June 1910 in Saint Mun's churchyard at Kilmun on Holy Loch in the west of Scotland.

     Dr, Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female physician, left behind a legacy that will forever help to pave the way for generations of female physicians and serves as an excellent example of the indomitable female spirit. 

     Elizabeth Blackwell was commemorated on a United States postage stamp in 1974. Designed by Joseph Stanley Kozlowski, it is part of the Syracuse University Medical School collection.


Author's Note:

This article was written in honor of  Women's History Month which occurs in March both in the United States and The United Kingdom.