History of the first woman doctor in the U.S. that had to face adversity gaining acceptance to a medical college for her degree.
Early Life of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell
February 3rd will be celebrated as National Woman Physicians Day. A day to pay homage to the woman who paved the way and advocated for female physicians. Yet, she faced uncertainty and discrimination that is still prevalent for female physicians because of gender and being mothers.
Elizabeth was born in 1821 in England to Samuel and Hannah Blackwell. Her father was a sugar refiner until a fire destroyed his business, forcing him to sail to America in 1832 for better prospects. Samuel was an abolitionist and firmly believed his children should be educated. Dinners in the home consisted of discussions about politics, education, and slavery. Unfortunately, Samuel died suddenly in 1838, leaving the family penniless. The daughters were forced to secure teaching positions for the family.
The three oldest sisters opened the Cincinnati, Ohio English and French Academy and taught there until it closed in 1842. Elizabeth was offered a job teaching in Hendersonville, Kentucky, and while there, she witnessed slavery for the first time. So it wasn't long before she returned to Ohio.
While visiting a terminally ill friend of her mother's, the woman confided to her that if a woman had treated her, it might have lessened her suffering. Elizabeth took this to heart and decided to devote her life to medicine.
Elizabeth's Quest For Admission To A Medical College
Elizabeth began sending letters to physicians asking for their advice on enrolling in medical colleges. At long last, one of her letters reached Dr. John Dickson; a physician turned preacher. He could secure her a position teaching music and allow her access to his vast medical library. e left for Charleston, South Carolina, to stay with his brother Dr. Samuel Dickson. Every spare hour was spent reading his medical texts to learn all she could.
After twenty-nine rejections, she finally received an acceptance from Hobart College (then it was called Geneva College). The dean decided to put her approval to a vote to the 150 male students. Believing it to be a joke of some kind, they unanimously all voted yes. Eliz eth was thrilled and soon realized the male students discounted her intelligence, not believing a woman could learn so much. She d suffered the indignity of sitting by herself and not being allowed to attend labs when male anatomy was discussed. Of course, she challenged this and won her right to attend all labs.
Elizabeth fooled them all and graduated first in her class, making her the first woman to receive the coveted physician's degree in the U.S. Her thesis was on Typhoid Fever and published in 1849 in the Buffalo Medical Journal. That publication made her the first female medical student to publish in the U.S.
Elizabeth Goes To Paris To Work
While in Paris, Elizabeth worked at the La Matronite, a hospital for women and infants. While treating an infant, she accidentally squirted some in her left eye, contracting an infection. Doctors determined the eye would need to be extracted as soon as possible. And, she knew she would never be a surgeon. So instead, she would focus on prevention and treatment. She lecture for years advocating for women physicians and emphasizing the benefits of cleanliness.
In 1857 Elizabeth, her sister Emily, and a college, opened an infirmary for Women and Children in New York. During the Civil War, the Blackwell sisters offered to train nurses for the Union Hospitals. Emily also obtained her medical degree in 1854 from Western Reserve Medical College.
Elizabeth Blackwell's Personal Life
Elizabeth never married, believing she was placed on earth to practice and teach medicine. However, she did adopt a young Irish servant, Kitty Barry, who would be with Elizabeth until Elizabeth died in 1910. Elizabeth's funeral was attended by many those in the medical field. Her interment was in the churchyard at St. Munn's Church, Argyl, Scotland, where she loved to visit. Then when Kitty died in 1936, she requested that her ashes be buried beside Elizabeths.
Memorials To Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell
- 1973 Elizabeth was inducted into the National Women's Hall Of Fame.
- 1971 A bronze coin was made to honor the 150th anniversary of Elizabeth's birth.
- 1974 A U.S. Post Office stamp was issued to honor her.
A bronze statue was erected on the Hobart and William Smith College in her honor.
Each year the Elizabeth Blackwell Medal is awarded to a woman who has made a significant contribution to the promotion of women in medicine. The winner in 2021 was Susan Thompson Hingle.