GENERAL KNOWLEDGE: Information to furnish the mind

Elizabeth Blackwell

Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to obtain a medical degree in the United States. (from National Institutes of Health archives. )

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.

Admitted to medical school as a joke

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.

Devotes herself to the poor

Linda Gray Kelley as Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell
Linda Gray Kelley portrays Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell for the traveling production company Theatre Rising. <>

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 women and children in the United States and in England.

6 Responses

  1. Linda,
    I had no idea that the picture I posted was of modern vintage! I’d love to see you perform. I’ll have to give you proper credit in the caption.

    I live in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

    Thanks for commenting.

  2. Dear Maeve,

    Thanks for the excellent posting. I play Dr. Blackwell and thought you might be interested in knowing that since you mentioned a movie. Go to website and let me know where you are from. I travel extensively and it would be fun to meet and discuss this woman who inspired us both. That is my picture you are using, tho it’s fine with me.

  3. Lawrence,
    There’s a lot more to this woman’s story than I could include in such a brief snippet. Her entire family was remarkable. Her story would make a great movie. Come to think of it, someone has surely done so by now. I think I’ll try to find one.

  4. Ah, shucks! I forgot something important; perhaps the most important part.

    God bless Elizabeth Blackwell for her splendid, altruistic love and her perseverance.

  5. Thanks for an inspirational article. I’d just finished reading David McCullough’s latest book: The Greater Journey, Americans in Paris. Since history mostly focuses on wars and political figures, McCullough wanted to show the importance of artists, musicians, doctors, etc. and chose the period between 1830 and 1900. Elizabeth Blackwell is included among the young doctors studying in Paris.

  6. Thanks, Maeve for this beautiful little story of success by perseverance in the face of overwhelming (to some) odds.

    A young criminal defense attorney in Florida by the name of Jose Baez recently suffered through three long years of similar overwhelming prejudice as he prepared his case and, then, fought for and saved the life of his client in court in the first major case of his short career. He, too, survived.

    Victory is sweetest when the fight is hardest and everyone is sure you will lose. I know this from experience. My successes in life have all been greatest when everyone said you cannot do that, or people won’t buy that, or nobody needs that.

    All that is required to win the hardest battles is a couple of things: faith in yourself and in the goodness of your goal, and–very important–the ability to keep your own counsel. Capital is not a requirement: ever.

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