Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to graduate from medical school in the United States. She was a pioneer in educating women in medicine and a leading public health activist.
Blackwell was born in 1821 in Bristol, England to Samuel and Hannah Blackwell. Her father was a dissenter, and so his children were denied public schooling. He hired private tutors to provide all of his children with an education, regardless of gender. When she was 12, Blackwell’s family moved to New York where her father established the Congress Sugar Refinery and became a strong supporter of abolition. In 1838, the Blackwells moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, after the economy crashed and Samuel Blackwell lost most of his wealth. A few months later, he died and Blackwell and her sisters supported the family by running The Cincinnati English and French Academy for Young Ladies, a boarding school for young women.
In 1842, Blackwell moved to Henderson, Kentucky for a teaching position but did not stay long. It was the first time she had to face the realities of slavery and, as an abolitionist, she could not stand working there. Blackwell returned to Cincinnati, a friend with a gynaecological condition told her that she thought if she’d had a female physician her treatment would have been better. This inspired Blackwell to become a doctor, although she was initially repulsed by the idea. Abortionists at the time were known as ‘female physicians’ and Blackwell thought this degrading. This, coupled with the fact that she wished to support herself, further fuelled her desire to become a doctor.
Blackwell took a job teaching music at an academy in Asheville, North Carolina so that she could save the $3,000 she would need to pay for medical school. While in Asheville, she started a Sunday school for slave children, although it did not prove successful. Blackwell lodged with Reverend John Dickson in Asheville, who had previously worked as a physician and he allowed her to use his medical books to study. Blackwell then began teaching at a boarding school in Charleston, and with the help of Rev. Dickson’s brother, Samuel Henry Dickson, a prominent Charleston physician, began applying to study medicine but was rejected by all she sent letters to. In 1847, Blackwell travelled to Philadelphia and New York, convinced that if she personally applied for medical school she would have greater success. In Philadelphia, she studied anatomy privately but, despite her growing medical knowledge she was still met with resistance. She was told that as she was a woman, she was intellectually inferior and if she were to succeed, it would look bad for the male students.
Eventually, she was accepted to the Geneva Medical School in New York, although her acceptance was initially a joke as no woman had ever attempted to gain admittance into a medical school. She was barred from attending classroom demonstrations at the beginning of her study, but soon managed to win over both her fellow students and the teaching staff due to her hard work and persistence. She graduated in 1849. Blackwell continued her studies at La Maternité Hospital, where she contracted an eye infection that left her blind in one eye and dashed her hopes of becoming a surgeon. She then worked at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, where she met and became friends with Florence Nightingale.
In 1852, Blackwell returned to the U.S. and continued to face opposition due to her gender. After being rejected from several positions she established her own private practice and began writing lectures on health, which were published in 1852 as The Laws of Life; with Special Reference to the Physical Education of Girls. A year later, Blackwell established the New York Dispensary for Poor Women and Children, she was later joined by her sister and fellow Doctor Emily. Four years later the dispensary became the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. That same year, Blackwell and her sister established the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children.
In 1957, Blackwell embarked on a year long lecture tour of the U.K. where she became the first woman listed on the British Medical Register. Blackwell’s lectures and her own personal reputation inspired several women to take up medicine as a profession, including Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.
In 1859, Blackwell returned to the U.S. and resumed her work in the Infirmary. During the Civil War, the Blackwell sisters helped to organise the Women’s Central Association of Relief, becoming responsible for the selection and training of nurses. This inspired the creation of the United States Sanitary Commission, which the Blackwell sisters also worked with. After the war, in 1868, Blackwell was able to realise her ambition of opening a Women’s Medical College at the Infirmary. She became the College’s chair of hygiene, as she believed that sanitary conditions were an important aspect of health.
In 1869, Blackwell moved to England where she set up a private practice in London. She also became active in social reform, and in 1971, she co-founded the National Health Society. In 1974, she helped to establish the London School of Medicine for Women with Sophia Jex-Blake, who had been one of the first students at her Medical College. The London School of Medicine for Women prepared women for the licensing exam of Apothecaries Hall, Blackwell was sidelined by Jex-Blake, who forced her to become a lecturer in midwifery. Blackwell remained part of the school until 1877, when she retired from her medical career. In 1975, Blackwell was appointed professor of gynaecology at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson’s London School of Medicine for Women and Children. She remained in this position until 1907.
From 1880 – 1895, Blackwell became involved in a wife range of reform movements like moral reform, sexual purity, hygiene and medical education. In 1895, her autobiography, Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women was published but sold less than 500 copies. In 1910, she died at home in Hastings, having paved the way for countless generations of female physicians. To celebrate her achievements, the American Medical Women’s Association annually awards the Elizabeth Blackwell Medal to a woman physician, and the Hobart and William Smith Colleges annually awards an Elizabeth Blackwell Award to women who have demonstrated “outstanding service to humankind. In 2013 the University of Bristol launched the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute for Health Research.