Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) is known for becoming America’s first woman doctor. Her sister Emily Blackwell was the third.
Born to Quaker parents in Bristol, England, Blackwell was brought up to believe that girls deserve the same educational opportunities as boys. Her family emigrated to the United States when she was eleven years old. She began her medical studies after her father’s death, by reading in private libraries. In 1847, she began looking for a medical school that would admit her.
After being rejected by twenty-nine schools, Blackwell applied to Geneva Medical College in New York. The faculty announced to the all-male student body that a woman had applied for admission and asked them to put it to a vote. Thinking it was a joke, the students voted to admit her, only to react in horror when they discovered that it was no joke.
Blackwell overcame prejudice and harassment to obtain her medical degree, graduating in January 1849 at the top of her class. No New York hospital would allow her to practice, so she went to Paris to study further at a maternity hospital. She’d intended to become a surgeon, but contracted an eye infection from an infant she was treating and lost one of her eyes.
Back in the United States, she couldn’t find a landlord who would permit her to open her own practice, so she bought a house. She opened a clinic in a New York slum. It eventually grew into a hospital: the New York Infirmary for Women and Children.
Blackwell spent her life advocating for better medicine for woman and children in the United States and in England.