February 3, 1821
Born In: Bristol, England
Died On: May 31, 1910
Nationality: United Kingdom
On the morning of January 23, 1849, a young woman ascended the platform of the Presbyterian Church in Geneva, and received a Diploma of Geneva Medical School from the hands of the President of Geneva. This young woman was Elizabeth Blackwell, who after years of determined efforts became the first woman in history to complete a course of study at a medical college and receive a medical degree. She was the first openly identified woman doctor, who pioneered the movement for educating women in medicine in the United States. Apart from that, Elizabeth Blackwell was a prominent figure in the various other women right movements as well. This article provides you with details on the childhood, life and timeline achievements of Elizabeth Blackwell.
Elizabeth Blackwell was born on February 3, 1821. She was the third of the nine children born to a sugar refiner Samuel Blackwell and his wife Hannah. Elizabeth’s father was a man of progressive view and thus provided Elizabeth and her sisters with proper education. The children were taught subjects such as Latin, Greek and mathematics. In the year 1832, the Blackwell family immigrated to the United States, after their business got destroyed due to fire. Samuel set up a refinery in New York City. The Blackwells were religious Quakers and due to their Quaker belief, they were anti-slavery. Samuel got an opportunity to set up a refinery in Ohio, where he met William Lloyd Garrison and got actively involved in abolitionist activities. However, unfortunately three months after Blackwells moved to the States, Samuel died of biliary fever.
After the death of Samuel, Elizabeth along with her two sisters Anna and Marian supported the family by opening a private school, in Cincinnati. Later on, she took up a career in teaching in Kentucky to pay up the money for a medical school. Elizabeth Blackwell used to hate medicine and everything that was related to the human body. She could not bear the sight of medical books as well. However, an incident turned her life completely, as she went on to become the first woman doctor in the world. Elizabeth turned to medicine, leaving aside her favorite subject ‘history’ and ‘metaphysics’, post the death of her close friend, who when on the death bed, suggested that she would have been spared her worst suffering, had her physician was a woman. This motivated Elizabeth and she took up residence in a physician’s house, using her spare time to study from the family’s medical library.
In 1845, Elizabeth moved to Asheville in North Carolina, where she read medicine at the home of Dr. John Dickson. Afterwards, she studied with his brother Dr. Samuel Henry Dickson in Charleston, South Carolina. Elizabeth also became an active member in the anti-slavery movements. After preparing herself for the medical field, Elizabeth started looking in for colleges to pursue her new-found medical career. However, due to medicine being a male dominated field and the prejudices attached to it, Elizabeth’s application was turned down by 29 medical schools, before being accepted by ‘Geneva Medical School’ in 1847. Post admission, Elizabeth faced a lot of difficulties, with the male students ostracizing her and the teachers refusing her permission to attend medical demonstrations, which they termed not fit for women to be part of. Not the one to be de-moralized, Elizabeth overcame all these difficulties and on the 11th of January 1849, she became the first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States. She graduated out of the school on the 23rd of January the same year, standing first in her class.
After graduating from the Geneva School, Elizabeth wished to start with her practice, but the stigmatized society banned her from practice in many hospitals. Due to this, she was advised to go to Paris, France and train herself at La Maternité. However, her training at the La Maternité was cut short, because of the eye infection, ‘purulent ophthalmia’, which she picked up from a baby she was treating. She had to get her eyes surgically removed and replace it with a glass eye. This incident brought Elizabeth back to England in October 1850, where she worked under Dr. James Paget at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. In the year 1851, Elizabeth returned to United States and attempted to find some work in New York. However, nothing had changed from the past, as the field of medicine still continued to be a male-dominating one. She was refused by all the dispensaries and hospitals. She was also refused lodging and office space by her landlords, when she sought to set up a private practice. To overcome these difficulties, Elizabeth purchased her own house wherein she started practicing medicine.
Elizabeth mostly had a clientele list that boasted of women and children. Along with her practice, she also wrote lectures on health topics, which she published in the year 1852 as a book named ‘The Laws of Life’, with special reference to the physical education of girls. The year 1857 proved out to be very productive for Elizabeth, who along with her sister Emily and Dr. Marie Zakrzewska opened her own infirmary, named ‘New York Infirmary’, to help out destitute women and children. Elizabeth even trained many women to be nurses and send them to the Union Army during the American Civil War. During the same year, Elizabeth got back to England where she attended Bedford College for Women for a year. On 1st of January 1859, Elizabeth became the first woman to have her name registered on the General Medical Council’s medical register, one which recognizes doctors with foreign degrees practicing in England. One year after the war in November 1868, Elizabeth Blackwell fulfilled her dream she had developed in conjunction with Florence Nightingale, to open a Women’s Medical College at her infirmary. In the year 1869, Elizabeth left the administration of the college under her sister Emily and returned to England.
Along with Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth helped to organize ‘The National Health Society’ and she founded the London School of Medicine for women. In the institution, she was offered a post of a professor of Gynecology. She retired from her post, after a serious injury she sustained from a fall downstairs. However, even after her retirement, Elizabeth maintained her interest in women’s rights movement, through various writings and lecturers. A series of lectures, which she had delivered in England in 1859, brought her immense fame and recognition in the country. Most of her books and lectures dealt with social hygiene, preventive medicines and proper hygiene. Some of the books which she wrote are “Physical Education of Girls” in 1852 and “Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Woman” in 1895.
Not much is known about the personal life of Elizabeth Blackwell, except for the fact that she decided to stay away from marriage and adopted an orphan, Katharine Barry, nicknamed Kitty in 1854.
In 1907, Blackwell sustained few injuries in a fall from which she never fully recovered. She died after getting a stroke attack on the 31st of May 1919 at her home in Hastings in Sussex. She was buried in June 1910 in Saint Mun’s churchyard on Holy Loch, in the west of Scotland.
1821: Elizabeth Blackwell was born
1832: Her family immigrated to New York
1845: She went to Asheville, North Carolina, where she read medicine in the home of Dr. John Dickson
1847: Elizabeth joined Geneva Medical School
1849: Elizabeth graduated to become the first woman medical student.
1850: Worked under Dr. James Paget at St. Bartholomew's Hospital
1852: “The Laws of Life”, book on her lectures got published
1854: Adopted an orphan, Katharine Barry
1857: Elizabeth, along with her sister Emily and Dr. Marie Zakrzewska, founded the New York Infirmary.
1857: Attended Bedford College for Women for one year
1859: First woman to get her name entered on the General Medical Council's medical register
1869: Founded London School of Medicine for Women
1895: “Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Woman”, her autobiography got published
1910: Left for the heavenly abode.