Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman doctor. She also created the first women’s medical school in America and the first Women’s infirmary. Elizabeth wasn’t just a doctor, but also a teacher and an author. She published Medicine as a Profession for Women in 1860, Address on the Medical Education of Women in 1864, and Pioneer work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women in 1895. Elizabeth Blackwell was born on February 3, 1821, in Bristol, England. Her parents are Samuel Blackwell and Hannah Lane. Samuel Blackwell owned a successful sugar refinery. Elizabeth was the third of nine children, in a very religious and wealthy family.
Her sisters were Marian, Emily, Sarah, and Anna, and her brothers were George, Samuel, Henry, and John. The Blackwell children never had public schooling because their father believed that the girls should have equal opportunity as the boys. Thus, they had private tutors teach them until they left for America. The Blackwell family moved to America when Elizabeth was eleven. They decided to move for financial reasons, social reasons, and because Samuel Blackwell wanted to abolish slavery. They moved from New York City to Newmar, New Jersey, and finally settled down in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Unfortunately, Samuel Blackwell died just a few years later, in 1838, leaving his wife and children with no family or money in a new country. To survive and pay for the boys’ education, all of the Blackwell women had to find jobs. Elizabeth, Emily, Sarah, and Hannah opened a school for boys and girls, where they taught public and private lessons. A few years later, Elizabeth accepted a higher paying job, as a teacher, at a girls school in Kentucky. Elizabeth was a good teacher, was popular with the students, and enjoyed teaching, but the headmistress and the students’ parents didn’t like her.
They were bothered by her criticism about slavery and her liberal attitude toward slaves. It wasn’t a surprise that she was not invited back to teach the next year. Instead of searching for a new job, Elizabeth tried to nurse her friend, Mary Donaldson, back to health. Unfortunately Mary was dying from Cancer, and everybody knew that there was nothing that could be done about it. For that reason, Elizabeth tried to “substitute love and attention and sympathy for drugs and surgery and a cure” (Gersh 168).
Mary was happy most of the time, but one day she cried “If only there had been a woman doctor to whom I might have gone years ago, I might not be dying now! ” (168). Before Mary said this, Elizabeth had never considered why there aren’t any female doctors. This situation kept bothering her, so after Mary died she told her friends and family about wanting to become a doctor. Everybody she told her dream to, said that it was impossible and to forget it. Eventually, Elizabeth stopped telling people about wanting to become a doctor, but she kept thinking and planning it in her head.
In 1841, Elizabeth announced that she was going to teach music at a school in North Carolina. Everybody was relieved that she had given up her ridiculous dream of becoming a doctor, although they were surprised that she would teach in a” slave state”(169). In reality, Elizabeth had only accepted the iob because the school was being run by Dr. John Dickson. Dr. John Dickson was a physician who had retired to teach. He also had an extensive medical library, that Elizabeth was allowed to use whenever she wanted.
Although Elizabeth wanted to become a doctor, she had doubts about whether it was worth it. I am very anxious about leaving the family circle and ordinary social life and taking the first steps in my future medical career. I feel I am severing the usual ties of life and preparing to act against my strong natural inclinations. But a force stronger than myself seems to lead me on, a purpose is before me which I must inevitably accomplish” (170). When Elizabeth taught at the school in North Carolina, she acted like a “proper young lady” (171). She was never seen outside of classes and meals, for she spent all of her free time in Dr. Dickson’s medical library.
She also never spent any of her pay. By 1847, Elizabeth had read the whole medical library and had saved up enough money to enter into the medical field. Since Philadelphia was the center of the medical field, she visited there first. She found board with an old family friend, Dr. Warrington, and started writing letters to philadelphia medical colleges. When all of the head of admissions either laughed at her, or politely turned her down, she wrote letters to out of state schools such as Harvard, Bowdoin, and New York. When those schools turned her down, she wrote to the smaller schools in the country.
She was growing frustrated and discouraged when she finally received her letter of acceptance to Geneva College. The only reason that she was admitted into Geneva was because of a joke. “The faculty, assuming that the all-male student body would never agree to a woman joining their ranks, allowed them to vote on her admission. As a joke, they voted “yes,” and she gained admittance, despite the reluctance of most students and faculty” (Changing the Face of Medicine Elizabeth Blackwell). A few days after she received her letter of acceptance, Elizabeth arrived in New York.
She visited most of the addresses on the rooming list that the college had sent her, but so far they had all said that they had no room for someone like her. Finally she found a landlady that cared more about a year’s rent, than the boarder’s reputation. That night, Elizabeth wrote that she did not get mad at the first few landlady’s, for a sentence from her letter of acceptance played in her mind over and over. “There are no fears (the dean had written) but that you can, by judicious management, not only disarm criticism, but elevate yourself without detracting in the least from the dignity of the profession” (Gersh 172).
Although the students had voted her in, some students and most professors refused to acknowledge her being there. They often referred to her as 130, her registration number. After the first few weeks, people stopped staring, and soon they acknowledged her by saying Blackwell, which was the same way that they acknowledged men. In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell graduated from Geneva Medical College and became the first woman doctor. New of her accomplishment spread all around the world. Some people laughed at it, some people loved it, and others thought it was the end of the world.
In fact, in England Punch magazine published a verse about her. “Young ladies all, of every clime Especially of Britain Who wholly occupy your time In novels or in knitting, Whose Highest skill is but to play, Sing, dance, or French to clack well Reflect on the example, pray, Of excellent Miss Blackwell” (175) Although Elizabeth was well known, she was afraid that if she went into the field of medicine right away, she would only be “a glorified midwife”(176). For that reason, she decided to continue with school and become as surgeon.
Elizabeth went straight to Paris, but no hospital would recognize an American degree, especially one given to a woman. Next she went to other hospitals in Europe, but she was told the same thing. When she was certain that no hospital would accept her as a doctor, she went to La Maternite, In Paris, as a nursing apprentice. One day, in 1851, she was nursing a young sick boy. Out of affection, the boy rubbed his face against Elizabeth’s. His diseased eye fluid got into Elizabeth’s eyes, so within a few weeks, she had ophthalmia and lost sight in one of her eyes.
Since she was blind in one eye, she had to give up her dreams of becoming a surgeon, and head back to New York. When Elizabeth returned to New York, she found out that even though the city’s respect for women had grown, landladies still would not board a woman doctor. Eventually, Elizabeth and her friends found a house that where Elizabeth could have an office. The only exception was that she could not hang a sign, her patients would have to find her another way. Weeks went by, and Elizabeth still hadn’t had her first patient, so she went down to the New York Tribune and paid for an ad.
Still, no patients came, so Elizabeth started to prepare a series of lectures about the physical education for girls. When she had finished writing the lectures, she put an ad in the New York Times saying when and where the lectures were taking place. Many people attended the lectures, but one woman, Mrs. Stacy Collins, was so impressed, that she became Elizabeth’s first patient. Other patients came, but her work was still growing very slowly. For the first time, Elizabeth began to doubt herself and her work. She wondered if New York was the best place to become a successful doctor.
She soon found an answer for all of her doubts. She would open the New York infirmary for Women and Children. Elizabeth and several of her friends created the infirmary in 1857. The three main doctors were Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, Dr. Emily Blackwell, and Dr. Marie E. Zakrzewska. Dr. Emily Blackwell was Elizabeth’s sister and a surgeon, and Dr. Marie E. Zakrzewska was a close friend and a physician. Not many people came to the infirmary, for a lot of people didn’t trust doctors, much less women doctors, but people’s need for medicine out weighed their distrust.
After the first few patients walked out of the infirmary, cured, more and more people started to come. Soon there were beds in the hallways and in the dining room. Elizabeth Blackwell started to plan for a women’s college, but the civil war interrupted her. While Abraham Lincoln called for men to fight, Elizabeth called a meeting for women. At that meeting, they organized two organizations, the National Sanitary Aid Association, and the Ladies’ Sanitary Commission.
The nurses sent to the battlefield had to first go through a three month training at Bellevue Hospital. The war put a strain on civilian infirmarys, so Elizabeth Blackwell treated Confederate and Union, and colored and white. When people objected, Elizabeth simply said “Suffering does not take sides. The battlefield cannot be reflected in a hospital” (183). After the war ended, Elizabeth and her friends created the Women’s Medical College of New York Infirmary, the first medical college for women. There she became the first professor of hygiene.
The school grew over the years, but Elizabeth was not there to see it, for she went to live in Hastings, England one year after the school was created. There she founded England’s first women’s medical college and England’s first women’s hospital. She also became a lecturer at London’s School of Medical for Women, and became the first woman listed on the British Medical Register. When she lived in England, she also adopted a young girl named Katherine Barry. She died on May 31, 1910, when she was 89, in her home in Hastings, England.
Elizabeth Blackwell’s accomplishments affected her family. Elizabeth’s sister became a doctor because of her, and nursed their sick mother back to health. Elizabeth’s accomplishments has also affected the whole world. As a result, women across the world have opportunities to become doctors, to have the same education as men, and to be treated by women doctors. In general, Elizabeth Blackwell changed the way that we see medicine and medical education. As the first female doctor once said, “Public opinion should be made, not followed” (Elizabeth Blackwell).