Elizabeth Blackwell: First Female Physician of the Modern Era

“[women] May be useful in some departments, but in surgery, no nerve” and “…can you think of a patient in a critical case, waiting for half an hour while the medical lady fixes her bonnet or adjusts her bustle?”

Elizabeth Blackwell

Elizabeth Blackwell

In a time when women were considered inferior, not only physically, but also mentally, simply the idea of a woman with her “delicate sensibilities” attempting to practice medicine was ludicrous enough to provoke comments such as those above. This was popular sentiment, making it a truly amazing feat that Elizabeth Blackwell was able to endure these prejudices, to not only pursue an education in medicine, but also use it as a platform for social and moral reform.

Early Life

Blackwell was born in England in 1821 to Samuel and Hannah Blackwell, one of nine children. Mr. Blackwell was a liberalist and therefore very involved in social reform. These ideals led to a firm belief in providing each of his children the opportunity to develop their talents and intellect. As a result, from a young age Elizabeth Blackwell benefitted from private tutors and the influence of her father’s social ideology. Eventually her father moved their family to America and in her early adulthood Blackwell pursued her interests in education and social reform. Later in her life, Blackwell would admit that initially all things medical had disgusted her, and it was the last words of a close, dying acquaintance admitting that a female physician would have been a comfort during the course of her illness, which had Blackwell considering a career in medicine.

Geneva Medical College

Geneva Medical College

Difficulties in Obtaining Medical Training

A woman applying to medical school was unheard of at the time, and medical school in itself was an expensive novelty. Tradition had been that budding physicians learned the practice of medicine by actually practicing under the apprenticeship of an already established physician. However, none of these barriers deterred Blackwell. If anything she saw it as a challenge, and a platform to advocate for reform in women’s education. Through the resources of physician acquaintances, she was able to self-study and work till she had enough for the tuition to apply to medical colleges in New York and Philadelphia. Frustratingly, all her applications were met with rejection. A small school in rural New York however, conflicted about her admittance, laid the decision to their current students. A single ‘no’ from any of the all-male student body would bar Blackwell’s admittance. Thinking it a joke, the vote was a unanimous ‘yes,’ and it was to the school and town’s horror and dismay when Blackwell arrived for her first day of classes at Geneva Medical College in upstate New York in 1847.

Blackwell took the hostility and cold welcoming inside and outside of the classroom in stride. According to rumor, Blackwell’s presence in school turned an otherwise raucous, unruly class of boys into well behaved gentlemen, leading to more productive lectures and the best class the school had taught in years. Over time, she earned the respect of many of her colleagues and faculty for her perseverance and ability. The course lasted two years, and in 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell graduated, top of her class, and the first female physician to be formally trained in America. Her example led to more women receiving a formal medical education.

Problems in Medical Practice

Wanting to further her studies, she returned to England, and found the education system even less welcoming than America, despite her medical degree. She studied as a midwife in Paris at La Maternité and was greatly recognized for her skills as an obstetrician. While treating one of her pediatric patients for a bacterial eye infection, she contracted the eye infection and was left blind in one eye, ruining her hopes of becoming a surgeon. Later, she worked at St. Bartholomew’s hospital where she befriended Florence Nightingale, another woman active in the field of medicine. More experienced and knowledgeable, Blackwell returned to New York with the intention of opening her own practice, but met resistance from all, not allowed to rent an office or able to gain the support of fellow male physicians.blackwellquote

Role in Medical Education for Women

With the help of her younger sister Emily, who had followed in her sister’s footsteps to also become a trained physician, and another student physician she took under her wing, she opened the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children in 1857, which allowed women to practice and further their training while providing care for the poor. Then, in 1868, Blackwell founded the Women’s Medical College. In addition to helping establish these institutions, she wrote several books on household health, women in medicine, medical sociology and sexual physiology, and while she never married or had any children of her own other than an adopted daughter, she wrote parenting books and advice to young girls.
Elizabeth Blackwell was truly a pioneer in the medical education of women. In her last years of practice, she taught as a professor of gynecology in the London School of Medicine, which she also helped established, before her declining health forced her to retire.

The Women's Medical College of the New York Infirmary. Anncouncement, 1868.

The Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary. Announcementt, 1868-69.

Sources
1. “Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell.” National Library of Medicine. Web. 5 Mar. 2015.
< http://www.nlm.nih.gov/changingthefaceofmedicine/physicians/biography_35.html >.
2. Lewis, Jone Johnson. “Elizabeth Blackwell First Female Physician.” Web. 5 Mar. 2015.
< http://womenshistory.about.com/od/blackwellelizabeth/a/eliz_blackwell.htm >.
3. Markel, Howard. “How Elizabeth Blackwell Became the First Female Doctor in the U.S.” PBS. 23 Jan. 2014. Web. 5 Mar. 2015. < http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/elizabeth-blackwell-becomes-the-first-woman-doctor-in-the-united-states/ >.
4. Nixon, Pat Ireland. The Medical Story of Early Texas 1528 – 1853. Lancaster, PE: Lancaster Press, Inc., 1946, p. 413. Print.

Images
Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell. Changing the Face of Medicine. 5 Mar 2015
< http://www.nlm.nih.gov/changingthefaceofmedicine/physicians/biography_35.html >. In public domain.

Geneva Medical College. 5 Mar 2015.
< http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Geneva_medical_college_lg.jpg >. In public domain.

The Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary. [Announcement, 1868-69] New York, 1868 National Library of Medicine. 5 Mar 2015. < http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:NYinfirmary.jpg>. In public domain

Thank you for reading and please stop by!
Nicole Iwuchukwu, School of Medicine