Elizabeth Blackwell (3 February 1821 – 31 May 1910) was a British physician, notable as the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States and the first woman on the Medical Register of the General Medical Council. She was the first woman to graduate from a medical school, a pioneer in promoting the education of women in medicine in the United States, and a social and moral reformer in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Due to her contribution to the world of medicine, she now has a national holiday dedicated to her on February 3rd to celebrate her innovative work in medicine called National Women Physicians Day. Her sister Emily was the third woman to get a medical degree in the US.
Elizabeth was born on 3 February 1821 in a house on Dicksons Street in Bristol, England, to Samuel Blackwell, a sugar refiner, and his wife Hannah (Lane) Blackwell. She had two older siblings, Anna and Marian, and would eventually have six younger siblings: Samuel(married Antoinette Brown), Henry (married Lucy Stone), Emily (third woman in the U.S. to get a medical degree), Sarah Ellen (a writer), John and George. Four maiden aunts, Barbara, Ann, Lucy and Mary, also lived with Blackwell during Blackwell’s childhood. Blackwell’s earliest memories were of her time living at a house at 1 Wilson Street, off Portland Square, Bristol.
Her childhood at Wilson Street was a happy one. Blackwell especially remembered the positive and loving influence of her father. Samuel and Hannah Blackwell were somewhat liberal in their attitudes towards not only child rearing, but also religion and social ideologies. For example, rather than beating the children for bad behavior, Barbara Blackwell recorded their trespasses in a black book. If the offences accumulated, the children might be exiled to the attic during dinner. Blackwell’s father was similarly liberal in his attitude towards the education of his children. Samuel Blackwell was a Congregationalist and exerted a strong influence over the religious and academic education of his children. He believed that each child, including his girls, should be given the opportunity for unlimited development of their talents and gifts. Blackwell had not only a governess, but private tutors to supplement her intellectual development. As a result, she was rather socially isolated from all but her family as she grew up. The Blackwell family moved from England to New York City in 1832, and six years later they moved to Cincinnati, Ohio.
The Blackwells’ financial situation was unfortunate. Pressed by financial need, the sisters Anna, Marian and Elizabeth started a school, The Cincinnati English and French Academy for Young Ladies, which provided instruction in most, if not all, subjects and charged for tuition and room and board. The school was not terribly innovative in its education methods – it was merely a source of income for the Blackwell sisters. Blackwell’s abolition work took a back seat during these years, most likely due to the academy.
Blackwell converted to Episcopalianism, probably due to her sister Anna’s influence, in December 1838, becoming an active member of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. However, William Henry Channing‘s arrival in 1839 to Cincinnati changed her mind. Channing, a charismatic Unitarian minister, introduced the ideas of transcendentalism to Blackwell, who started attending the Unitarian Church. A conservative backlash from the Cincinnati community ensued, and as a result, the academy lost many pupils and was abandoned in 1842. Blackwell began teaching private pupils.
Channing’s arrival renewed Blackwell’s interests in education and reform. She worked at intellectual self-improvement: studying art, attending various lectures, writing short stories and attending various religious services in all denominations (Quaker, Millerite, Jewish). In the early 1840s, she began to articulate thoughts about women’s rights in her diaries and letters and participated in the Harrison political campaign of 1840.
In 1844, with the help of her sister Anna, Blackwell procured a teaching job that paid $1,000 per year in Henderson, Kentucky. Although she was pleased with her class, she found the accommodations and schoolhouse lacking. What disturbed her most was that this was her first real encounter with the realities of slavery. „Kind as the people were to me personally, the sense of justice was continually outraged; and at the end of the first term of engagement I resigned the situation.” She returned to Cincinnati only half a year later, resolved to find a more stimulating way to spend her life.
Pursuit of medical education
Once again, through her sister Anna, Blackwell procured a job, this time teaching music at an academy in Asheville, North Carolina, with the goal of saving up the $3,000 necessary for her medical school expenses. In Asheville, Blackwell lodged with the respected Reverend John Dickson, who happened to have been a physician before he became a clergyman. Dickson approved of Blackwell’s career aspirations and allowed her to use the medical books in his library to study. During this time, Blackwell soothed her own doubts about her choice and her loneliness with deep religious contemplation. She also renewed her antislavery interests, starting a slave Sunday school that was ultimately unsuccessful.
Dickson’s school closed down soon after, and Blackwell moved to the residence of Reverend Dickson’s brother, Samuel Henry Dickson, a prominent Charleston physician. She started teaching in 1846 at a boarding school in Charleston run by a Mrs. Du Pré. With the help of Reverend Dickson’s brother, Blackwell inquired into the possibility of medical study via letters, with no favorable responses. In 1847, Blackwell left Charleston for Philadelphia and New York, with the aim of personally investigating the opportunities for medical study. Blackwell’s greatest wish was to be accepted into one of the Philadelphia medical schools.
My mind is fully made up. I have not the slightest hesitation on the subject; the thorough study of medicine, I am quite resolved to go through with. The horrors and disgusts I have no doubt of vanquishing. I have overcome stronger distastes than any that now remain, and feel fully equal to the contest. As to the opinion of people, I don’t care one straw personally; though I take so much pains, as a matter of policy, to propitiate it, and shall always strive to do so; for I see continually how the highest good is eclipsed by the violent or disagreeable forms which contain it.
Upon reaching Philadelphia, Blackwell boarded with Dr. William Elder and studied anatomy privately with Dr. Jonathan M. Allen as she attempted to get her foot in the door at any medical school in Philadelphia. She was met with resistance almost everywhere. Most physicians recommended that she either go to Paris to study or that she take up a disguise as a man to study medicine. The main reasons offered for her rejection were that (1) she was a woman and therefore intellectually inferior, and (2) she might actually prove equal to the task, prove to be competition, and that she could not expect them to „furnish [her] with a stick to break our heads with”. Out of desperation, she applied to twelve „country schools”.
Medical education in the United States
In October 1847, Blackwell was accepted as a medical student by Hobart College, then called Geneva Medical College, located in upstate New York. The dean and faculty, usually responsible for evaluating an applicant for matriculation, were not able to make a decision due to the special nature of Blackwell’s case. They put the issue up to a vote by the 150 male students of the class with the stipulation that if one student objected, Blackwell would be turned away. The young men voted unanimously to accept her.
When Blackwell arrived at the college, she was rather nervous. Nothing was familiar – the surroundings, the students, and the faculty. She did not even know where to get her books. However, she soon found herself at home in medical school. While she was at school, she was looked upon as an oddity by the townspeople of Geneva. She also rejected suitors and friends alike, preferring to isolate herself. In the summer between her two terms at Geneva, she returned to Philadelphia, stayed with Dr. Elder, and applied for medical positions in the area to gain clinical experience. The Guardians of the Poor, the city commission that ran Blockley Almshouse, granted her permission to work there, albeit not without some struggle. Blackwell slowly gained acceptance at Blockley, although some young resident physicians still would walk out and refuse to assist her in diagnosing and treating her patients. During her time there, Blackwell gained valuable clinical experience but was appalled by the syphilitic ward and those afflicted with typhus. Her graduating thesis at Geneva Medical College was on the topic of typhus. The conclusion of this thesis linked physical health with socio-moral stability – a link that foreshadows her later reform work.
On January 23, 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to achieve a medical degree in the United States. The local press reported her graduation favorably, and when the dean, Dr. Charles Lee, conferred her degree, he stood up and bowed to her.
In April, 1849, Blackwell made the decision to continue her studies in Europe. She visited a few hospitals in Britain and then headed to Paris. Her experience there was similar to her experience in America; she was rejected by many hospitals because of her gender. In June, Blackwell enrolled at La Maternité; a „lying-in” hospital, under the condition that she would be treated as a student midwife, not a physician. She made the acquaintance of Hippolyte Blot, a young resident physician at La Maternité. She gained much medical experience through his mentoring and training. By the end of the year, Paul Dubois, the foremost obstetrician in his day, had voiced his opinion that she would make the best obstetrician in the United States, male or female.
On 4 November 1849, when Blackwell was treating an infant with ophthalmia neonatorum, she spurted some contaminated solution into her own eye accidentally and contracted the infection. She lost sight in her left eye, causing her to have her eye surgically extracted and thus lost all hope of becoming a surgeon. After a period of recovery, she enrolled at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London in 1850. She regularly attended James Paget‘s lectures. She made a positive impression there, although she did meet some opposition when she tried to observe the wards.
Feeling that the prejudice against women in medicine was not as strong there, Blackwell returned to New York City in 1851 with the hope of establishing her own practice.
After leaving for Britain in 1869, Blackwell diversified her interests, and was active both in social reform and authorship. She co-founded the National Health Society in 1871. She perceived herself as a wealthy gentlewoman who had the leisure to dabble in reform and in intellectual activities – the income from her American investments supported her. She was rather occupied with her social status, and her friend, Barbara Bodichon helped introduce Blackwell into her circles. She travelled across Europe many times during these years, in England, France, Wales, Switzerland and Italy.
Her greatest period of reform activity was after her retirement from the medical profession, from 1880–1895. Blackwell was interested in a great number of reform movements – mainly moral reform, sexual purity, hygiene and medical education, but also preventative medicine, sanitation, eugenics, family planning, women’s rights, associationism, Christian socialism, medical ethics and antivivisection – none of which ever came to real fruition. She switched back and forth between many different reform organisations, trying to maintain a position of power in each. Blackwell had a lofty, elusive and ultimately unattainable goal: evangelical moral perfection. All of her reform work was along this thread. She even contributed heavily to the founding of two utopian communities: Starnthwaite and Hadleigh in the 1880s.
She believed that the Christian morality ought to play as large a role as scientific inquiry in medicine and that medical schools ought to instruct students in this basic truth. She also was antimaterialist and did not believe in vivisections. She did not see the value of inoculation and thought it dangerous. She believed that bacteria were not the only important cause of disease and felt their importance was being exaggerated.
She campaigned heavily against licentiousness, prostitution and contraceptives, arguing instead for the rhythm method. She campaigned against the Contagious Diseases Acts, arguing that it was a pseudo-legalisation of prostitution. Her 1878 Counsel to Parents on the Moral Education of their Children was an essay on prostitution and marriage arguing against the Contagious Diseases Acts.
She was conservative in all senses except that she believed women to have sexual passions equal to those of men, and that men and women were equally responsible for controlling those passions.
Others of her time believed women to have little if any sexual passion, and placed the responsibility of moral policing squarely on the shoulders of the woman. The book was controversial, being rejected by 12 publishers, before being printed by Hatchard and Company. The proofs for the original edition were destroyed by a member of the publisher’s board and a change of title was required for a new edition to be printed.
Friends and family
Blackwell was well connected, both in the United States and in the United Kingdom. She exchanged letters with Lady Byron about women’s rights issues, and became very close friends with Florence Nightingale, with whom she discussed opening and running a hospital together. She remained lifelong friends with Barbara Bodichon, and met Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1883. She was close with her family, and visited her brothers and sisters whenever she could during her travels.
However, Blackwell had a very strong personality, and was often quite acerbic in her critique of others, especially of other women. Blackwell had a falling out with Florence Nightingale after Nightingale returned from the Crimean War. Nightingale wanted Blackwell to turn her focus to training nurses, and could not see the legitimacy of training female physicians. After that, Blackwell’s comments upon Florence Nightingale’s publications were often highly critical. She was also highly critical of many of the women’s reform and hospital organisations in which she played no role, calling some of them „quack auspices”. Blackwell also did not get along well with her more stubborn sisters Anna and Emily, or with the women physicians she mentored after they established themselves (Marie Zakrzewska, Sophia Jex-Blake and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson). Among women at least, Blackwell was very assertive and found it difficult to play a subordinate role.