Medical first: Elizabeth Blackwell

We’re just a few days away from the 200th anniversary of Elizabeth Blackwell’s birth: she was born in Bristol, England, on 3 February 1821 – early in the reign of King George IV and a few months before Napoleon Bonaparte died. During her lifetime she changed the practice of medicine in the Western world.

In January 1849, she became the first woman to be awarded a medical degree in the United States. A decade later she became the first woman to have her name entered into the British General Medical Council’s medical register, which was formed under the 1858 Medical Act “to take charge of registration and medical education across the UK”.

Blackwell’s father, Samuel, owned a sugar-refining business in Bristol, but in 1832 his main mill was destroyed by fire and he moved the family to the United States, living first in New York before eventually settling in Ohio.

A short biography of Elizabeth Blackwell”, published by the University of Bristol’s Elizabeth Blackwell Institute for Health Research, says the source of Blackwell’s determination to become a physician came to her “when a family friend became terminally ill and claimed she would have received more considerate treatment from a female doctor”.

Prevented from attending medical school because of her gender, Blackwell sought out doctors who were willing to tutor her, including anatomical studies in the private school of “Dr Allen”. In her 1895 autobiography, Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women, she says Dr Allen “enabled me to overcome the natural repulsion to these studies generally felt at the outset”, and that he gave her, “as my first lesson in practical anatomy, a demonstration of the human wrist”. 

“The beauty of the tendons and exquisite arrangements of this part of the body struck my artistic sense, and appealed to the sentiment of reverence with which this anatomical branch of study was ever afterwards invested in my mind.” 

A profile of Blackwell on the Changing the Face of Medicine website says she “applied to all the medical schools in New York and Philadelphia. She also applied to 12 more schools in the northeast states.”

After so many rejections, some of Blackwell’s friends suggested she go to France to study, or disguise herself as a man in order to break through the gender bias in the US. But she refused, explaining that: “It was to my mind a moral crusade on which I had entered, a course of justice and common sense, and it must be pursued in the light of day, and with public sanction, in order to accomplish its end.”

Finally, in 1847, she was accepted by tiny Geneva Medical College (which today is known as Hobart and William Smith Colleges) in western New York state. Reportedly, the Geneva faculty thought that its all-male student cohort wouldn’t agree to a woman student, and allowed a vote on Blackwell’s admission: the result was “yes” – as a joke, apparently.

Although Blackwell says she “soon felt perfectly at home among my fellow students”, she later learned that in the town, “I had so shocked Geneva propriety that the theory was fully established either that I was a bad woman, whose designs would gradually become evident, or that, being insane, an outbreak of insanity would soon be apparent.”

In 1849 Blackwell was awarded her Doctor of Medicine degree.

Having reached her initial goal, she travelled to Europe and continued her studies in clinics in London and Paris. There she trained in midwifery, and contracted the infectious eye disease purulent ophthalmia, which cost her the sight in her right eye and put an end to her hopes becoming of becoming “the first lady surgeon in the world”, as she says in her autobiography.

Returning to the US in 1851, Blackwell established a medical practice in New York, and in 1857 opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children in collaboration with her sister Emily, who had also qualified as a doctor. In 1869 Blackwell returned home to Britain, where set up in private practice in 1870. 

She founded the National Health Society in 1871, which aimed to educate people about the benefits of hygiene and healthy lifestyles, with the credo that prevention is better than cure. The society tried to educate the public about health and ways people could help prevent disease spreading.

By 1890 Blackwell had stopped practicing medicine. She was a deeply religious person, strongly conservative in her opinions, but continued to advocate for women’s rights for the remainder of her life.

“It has become clear to me that our medical profession has not yet fully realised the special and weighty responsibility which rests upon it to watch over the cradle of the race; to see that human beings are well born, well nourished, and well educated,” she wrote in her autobiography.

“The study of human nature by women as well as men commences that new and hopeful era of the intelligent co-operation of the sexes through which alone real progress can be attained and secured.”

Blackwell died on 31 May 1910 in Hastings, East Sussex.

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