Elizabeth Blackwell is acknowledged as the first ever female physician in the United States! She was the first woman to earn a medical degree in the U.S. and the first to be listed on the British Medical Register. As you can imagine, she faced discrimination while attending medical school and practicing medicine as a woman in the early to mid 1800's. Blackwell's strength in overcoming the rejection, prejudice, and social stigma paved the way for many others to follow in her footsteps. Here are 5 things you might not know about her journey in Medicine.
“It is not easy to be a pioneer but oh, it is fascinating! I would not trade one moment, even the worst moment, for all the riches in the world.” — Elizabeth Blackwell, MD
As a Child, She Didn't Have Access to Public School
Blackwell was born in Bristol, England, on February 3, 1821, to a family of Quakers and abolitionists who were great believers in education. Since her family were English Dissenters (who separated from the Church of England) she and her nine siblings were denied access to public school. Her family chose to hire private tutors for all of their children, both their sons and daughters. Her family's focus on education proved to be a great influence on Blackwell and her siblings.
The Death of a Close Friend Inspired Her To Pursue Medicine
In 1832, the family immigrated to the U.S, first to New York City, then to Cincinnati, Ohio. When her father died in 1838, Elizabeth, her mother, and her two older sisters worked as teachers to help provide for the family.
Despite the cultural, and financial challenges Blackwell faced, she was inspired to pursue a career in medicine after a dying friend admitted she would have been spared suffering and embarrassment if she’d had a female physician.
“The idea of winning a doctor’s degree gradually assumed the aspect of a great moral struggle, and the moral fight possessed immense attraction for me.”— Elizabeth Blackwell, MD
Her Admission to Medical School Happened as Part of a Practical Joke
While teaching in Kentucky, Elizabeth boarded with two physicians who agreed to mentor her. In 1847, after applying unsuccessfully to every medical college in New York City and Philadelphia, she was finally accepted at Geneva Medical College in western New York. Her admission was a fluke, as the faculty had put the question to the all-male student body for a vote, and as a practical joke, they’d voted unanimously to admit her.
She Graduated First in Her Class From Medical School
She was initially ostracized by both educators and patients, but eventually earned their respect. In 1849, she graduated first in her class from medical school. Even still, after school, she was unable to gain medical employment in the U.S. due to being a woman. She was able to work in clinics in England and France, and in the 1850s returned to the U.S.
She Opened Her Own Medical College for Women
After returning to the U.S., Blackwell, her sister, and Marie Zakrzewska—all female physicians—opened the New York Dispensary for Poor Women and Children. Then, in 1857, Blackwell founded the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. In 1861, she helped establish the U.S. Sanitary Commission. In 1868 she opened the Women’s Medical College, one of the first in the U.S. to require 4 years of study. Leaving her sister Emily to run the college, Elizabeth returned to London, becoming a professor of gynecology at the London School of Medicine for Women in 1875. She retired from medicine in the late 1870s, remaining active in various reform movements and publishing her autobiography in 1895.
Though Blackwell faced substantial societal resistance in her quest to become a doctor and establish a practice, her persistence and determination opened the doors to medical training for women in the U.S. long before women even had the right to vote in the U.S.
This Woman Physician Day, we're celebrates women in medicine! If you are a member of the American Medical Women’s Association, you’ll receive a discount on MedStudy products. Log into your AMWA account to learn more.