Inspirational Women: Elizabeth Blackwell First Female Doctor

Oh readers it’s been a rough few days but I seem to have come through them reasonably well all things considered. But when things are tough in my own life I often find the lives of women from the past the most influential and encouraging and can be like chicken soup for the soul.


Yesterday was an important anniversary in the life of one such woman, who in my opinion, should be even better known. Her name is Elizabeth Blackwell and she was the first woman to graduate from Medical degree in the United States of America.


rather a stern portrait of Elizabeth Blackwell

rather a stern portrait of Elizabeth Blackwell


She was in fact British born in Bristol, where her father was a Sugar refiner. He was also a Congregationalist, a protestant sect that believed that the people of the church could converse with God with out a pastor, priest or minister. They live their lives simplistically according to the Old Testament, which they believe is closer to how the early Christians lived and followed Christianity.


Her father was also open minded about educating his children both male and female alike. He strongly believed that if a child had a talent it should be nurtured and encouraged.


Aged 11, Elizabeth found her life was to change when Bristol had become unstable and her father decided to relocate the family to America. The set sail for the New York in search of a better life like many other families during the 19th Century. The sailed in August 1832 on the good ship Cosmo.


Her father also be came an active member of New York Congregationalist Church and was part of the abolition movement. William Lloyd Garrison and Theordor Weld leading Pro abolition men frequented the Blackwell home during Elizabeth’s childhood. This was to shape the woman that she became and both she and her siblings actually gave up sugar in protest against the slavery radical for children of a sugar refiner! In fact Elizabeth attended many abolition fairs and anti slavery meetings during the late 1830s.


The family were forced to move when the refinery burnt down in New York and went to settle in Cincinnati so that they could start refining Sugar beet rather than cane sugar in another anti slavery gesture. However the dream never happened, 3 weeks after the move, Samuel Blackwell died.


The four years after her fathers death the Blackwell sisters set up a school for girls teaching most subjects – it was a way to earn a living nothing more. But during this time Elizabeth encountered a man who would influence her as much as her father did, his name was William Henry Channing.  He was part of the Transcendentalism movement that was taught by the Unitarian Church. It was anti Intellectualism and focused its feelings of distrust towards Harvard University. Other leading Transcendentalists include Walt Whitman, Emily Dickenson, and Louisa May Alcott.


Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott


So at this point you have met an intelligent radical thinking Christian woman but there is no hint of wanting to become a doctor. Well the idea first accured to her when a female friend was terminally ill. She was in server pain and she said that her overall experience of medical help would have been less unconvertible in more ways than one if she had been visited and treated by a female Doctor.


Elizabeth however was not natural doctor material in fact she found the human body as alien and was squeamish looking at medical texts however she did firmly believe that women would make excellent doctors due to their nurturing nature and motherly feelings.


The inner feminist also nagged at Blackwell for at the time “female doctors” were known as back ally abortionists. This association with the idea of women practising medicine debased and insulted the capabilities of women in Elizabeth’s eyes.


In order to get the money to go to university to study for medical degree, Blackwell got a job teaching music in North Carolina. He lodged with a Rev John Dickinson who had been a doctor before he became a minister. He encouraged her in her dream to become a Doctor and allowed her to study the medical books in his library. During her stay with Reverend Dickinson she opened a slave school however this inspired idea failed and she moved on to live in Charleston and went to live with the reverends brother, Samuel Dickinson, who was a practising doctor. In order to keep the money coming in Elizabeth went to teach at a local boarding school. It was during her stay with Dr Dickinson that she started to write to universities to inquire about applying for medical training. The response was far from encouraging but this would not put off Ms Blackwell.


In 1847, Blackwell headed to Philadelphia while there she undertook private lesson and study of anatomy with Dr Jonathan M Allen, hoping this would put her in good stead to finding a place in medical school. Her attempts to get a place were met with prejudice. It was suggested that she should try and go to Paris to study or even more insulting disguise herself as a man to get a medical education! The main reasons given for her rejection were that as a woman she was intellectually inferior to male students or she prove them right and become competition to her male graduates! Poor woman how insulting were these so called places of education and enlightenment!


geneva Medical College, New York state

geneva Medical College, New York state


However in the autumn (or fall) of 1847, Elizabeth won a place at Geneva Medical College in New York state. With hard work she managed to gain clinical experience between her semesters at a poor almshouse in Philadelphia. While there she worked on wards that cared for people with syphilis and typhus. This experience would help her in final dissertation which was on typhus. She graduated on 23rd January 1849.


This is an amazing achievement she went to Paris to further her studies and then London where she enrolled at St Bartholomew’s hospital and attended lectures. Unfortunately at this time she as blind in her left eye after an accident while treating a child with an eye infection, she contracted the infection causing blindness.


She found the same prejudices against her due to her gender in Europe and decided to return to America to pursue her medical career. She did set up a private practice in New York City however the stigma of abortion and female doctors affected trade so in the end she opened a dispensary in 1853. She also encouraged a fellow like minded woman Marie Zakrzewska who also wanted to be a female physician. Her sister Emily was also inspired by Elizabeth and obtained a medical degree and the three women expanded on the Infirmary by creating an Infirmary for the care of women and children. These women not only were practicing doctors but also on the board of trustees.


During the American Civil war the women helped with training nurses and were strongly allied to the Northern cause and Elizabeth’s abolition views.


Elizabeth did return to England and hoped to open a satellite infirmary on English soil as Drs with Foreign medical degrees were now allowed to practice in Britain. However these plans never materialised but she was the First woman to get her name onto the General medical Councils register on the 1st January 1859. During her return to the UK Blackwell also communicated and helped Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Britain’s first female Doctor.


First British Female Dr Elizabeth Garret Anderson

First British Female Dr Elizabeth Garret Anderson


In 1868 the Blackwell’s decided to open a training college to train women doctors in New York, a brave and ambitious project. But the two sister parted ways as they clashed over how to run the medical school and develop the infirmary. So Elizabeth sailed back to England and located herself in London were she established a medical train college for women it opened in 1874 as the London school of medicine for women. She officially retired from her medical career in 1877.


London School of medicine for women srt up by Blackwell.

London School of medicine for women srt up by Blackwell.


She went on to write an autobiography called Pioneer work in opening the medical profession to women. In 1907 she fell down some stairs and disabled herself both physically and metal. Three years later she died on 31st May 1910 of a stroke in her home in Hastings.


I find it hard to believe that Dr Elizabeth Blackwell is not a house hold name or that there hasn’t been a film about this incredible woman’s life. She was inspirational, strong willed, moral, upstanding, independent, feisty and determined qualities that made her achieve her ambitions and goals.

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