In January 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell made history as the first formally accredited female physician in the United States, thereby charting a new course for women in medicine all over the world. Being the first of her kind, Blackwell encountered several challenges in the early years of her career as a physician. However, she soldiered on through it all and made a name for herself as a role model for aspiring female physicians both in the US and in her home country of the United Kingdom. Blackwell’s birthday – February 3, is commemorated as the National Women Physicians Day in recognition of her contributions to the promotion of the education of women in medicine.
Elizabeth Blackwell’s Bio
Elizabeth Blackwell was born on February 3, 1821, in Bristol, England to Hannah and Samuel Blackwell. Her parents adopted a liberal disposition in her upbringing in terms of education, religion and social ideologies. Equal educational opportunities were given to both the male and female children of the family. She had private tutors and other requirements designed to grant her an unlimited development of her abilities. However, she turned out to be slightly socially isolated from her peers. In 1832, the Blackwells immigrated to the United States, settling in New York City and 6 years after, they changed their location again to Cincinnati, Ohio.
Elizabeth Blackwell was raised in a large household. She had 2 older siblings Anna and Marian and 6 younger ones Samuel, Henry, Emily, Sarah Ellen, John and George. Her family fell into financial difficulties during her early adulthood and in a bid to supplement the family’s income, Blackwell and her older sisters Anna and Marian set up a school known as The Cincinnati English and French Academy for Young Ladies.
Blackwell converted to Episcopalianism in December 1838 but she later switched to transcendentalism following the arrival of William Henry Channing, a charismatic minister of the Unitarian Church in 1839. Her conversion to the Unitarian Church provoked a furious backlash from the conservative Cincinnati community and consequently, the student population of the academy dwindled which climaxed in the closure of the school in 1842.
Elizabeth Blackwell’s conversion to the Unitarian Church also roused her desire for intellectual self-improvement. While working as a teacher to pay her bills, she embarked on an aggressive quest for knowledge through the study of art, attending lectures and also taking part in the religious services of all sects.
She began saving up for the cost of medical school while working as a teacher in Asheville, North Carolina and later in Charleston, South Carolina. She initially considered the possibility of studying medicine via correspondence but with no positive response. Blackwell eventually moved to Philadelphia in 1847 with the desire to get admitted into one of the medical schools there. However, she was met with stiff resistance at every corner and advised to either camouflage as a man to study medicine or move to Paris for her studies, both of which she rejected.
She was eventually accepted into Geneva Medical College (now Hobart College) in October 1847 after her application received a unanimous vote by the 150 all-male student-body of the school. However, Blackwell’s challenges persisted even after gaining admission into medical school. Her attempts at gaining clinical experience during the summer holidays in Philadelphia were rebuffed as she was rejected in several institutions in the area. When she was eventually accepted at the Blockley Almshouse, she received some early resistance from a number of young physicians who refused to assist her in attending to her patients. Despite the bottlenecks, she was able to complete her studies and graduate from medical school.
On January 23, 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell was conferred with her medical degree and her graduation was well-reported by the local press. She moved to Europe in April 1849 where she obtained further studies in obstetrics and paediatrics. She first enrolled at La Maternité, a maternity clinic in Paris, France on the premise that she would be regarded as a midwife in training and not a physician. Her stint at the facility came to an end in November 1849 after she accidentally contracted an eye infection which eventually cost her the use of one eye.
After a long period of treatment and recovery, Blackwell enrolled at St Bartholomew’s Hospital London in 1850 where also she met some degree of resistance. She eventually returned to New York City the following year with the hope of establishing her own practice. However, she had only a few patients within her first year of private practice, owing to the erroneous assumption which stereotyped women doctors as abortionists. Blackwell also put out several publications and delivered lectures even as her medical career began to flourish.
In 1858, Elizabeth Blackwell established a dispensary – the New York Infirmary, for Indigent Women and Children alongside her sister Emily Blackwell, who had also obtained a medical degree and Marie Zakrzewska, a young female doctor from Poland. The institution was the first of its kind as it had women serving on its administrative board and also as attending physicians.
On January 1, 1859, Blackwell became the first woman physician to be listed on the UK Medical Register under a provision in the Medical Act of 1858 which acknowledged doctors with foreign degrees to practise in Britain prior to 1858.
The London School of Medicine for Women was established in 1874 by Elizabeth Blackwell and Sophia Jex-Blake. Blackwell later lost much of her influence in the institution to Jex-Blake and was elected as a lecturer in midwifery, a position she quit in 1877.
In addition to her trail-blazing the medical career, Blackwell was also an excellent author and a social reforms activist. She took interest in a number of reform movements all of which were centred on the goal of “evangelical moral perfection”. A staunch conservative, she was strongly opposed to licentiousness, prostitution and the use of contraceptives.
Elizabeth Blackwell remained active even as an octogenarian though her activities were greatly restricted by old age. She fell from a flight of stairs in 1907 while vacationing in Kilmun, Scotland, which left her nearly incapacitated both mentally and physically. She passed on 3 years later on May 31, 1910, at her home in Hastings, Sussex after suffering a partial stroke. Her ashes were deposited at the cemetery of St Munn’s Parish Church, Kilmun.
Other Interesting Facts About Elizabeth Blackwell
The Elizabeth Blackwell Medal is awarded annually by the American Medical Women’s Association to a female doctor who has made giant strides in promoting the cause of women in the field of medicine. The award was instituted in 1949, a century after Blackwell received her medical degree.
Blackwell’s younger sister Emily Blackwell equally toed her sister’s footsteps into the field of medicine and was the third woman to earn a medical degree in the US. Just like her older sister, Emily Blackwell was rejected at several medical schools before eventually getting accepted at the Medical College of Cleveland, Ohio (now Case Western Reserve School of Medicine). She graduated in 1854. Among other collaborations, the Blackwell sisters established the Women’s Medical College in New York City in 1868.
In 1856, Elizabeth Blackwell adopted an Irish orphan Katherine “Kitty” Barry (born 1848) from the New York House of Refuge. Barry’s education was well catered for though she did not have the freedom to pursue her own interests. She escorted Blackwell on her many travels and remained with her until her death. Barry moved to Kilmun in Argyllshire, Scotland following Blackwell’s death in 1910. She later moved in with the surviving Blackwells and also took up the ‘Blackwell’ last name.