Elizabeth Blackwell: the pioneering ‘first female doctor’, who entered medicine to prove a point

Elizabeth Blackwell is perhaps best known as the first woman to receive a medical degree in the US, but her story is broader than that of a trailblazer. Janice P Nimura, author of The Doctors Blackwell, considers why Blackwell became a doctor – and how she managed it at time when the world shuddered at the very idea of a woman in this role

Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the US

You may be familiar with the name Elizabeth Blackwell, usually followed by the phrase ‘first woman doctor’. Born in Bristol in the early 19th century, she later became the first woman in America to receive a medical degree. Maybe you had a picture book about her as a child – an inspirational tale for girls. Or maybe you’ve never heard of her at all.

Advertisement

The nine Blackwell siblings were the children of a paradox. Their father Samuel, a Dissenter from the Church of England, was both a sugar refiner and an abolitionist, a man who profited from a commodity that depended on enslaved labour – which he abhorred.

He gave his five daughters the same educational opportunities as his four sons, and moved them from Bristol to New York in 1832 and then all the way to Cincinnati in 1838, hoping to replace Caribbean cane with northern-grown sugar beets. Then he died, broke, his final lesson that a husband was no guarantee of security. None of his daughters ever married.

Who was Elizabeth Blackwell?

Blackwell, the third child and third daughter, was brilliant, socially awkward and blessed with a healthy sense of self-worth. She agreed with the Transcendentalist writer and editor Margaret Fuller, who had proclaimed that humanity would not achieve enlightenment until women proved that they were capable of anything they chose – that achievement was a matter of talent and toil, not sex. Elizabeth wanted to be someone whose life embodied Fuller’s idea.

Elizabeth Blackwell: facts about her life

Born: 3 February 1821, in Bristol, England

Died: 31 May 1910, in Hastings, England

Family: Elizabeth Blackwell was the third of nine children born to sugar refiner Samuel Blackwell and his wife Hannah. Her siblings include Emily Blackwell, the third woman to gain a medical degree in the US.

What is Elizabeth Blackwell known for?

Becoming the first woman to gain a medical degree in the US; first woman to be included in Britain’s Medical Register; opening the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children alongside her sister Emily, and the subsequent Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary; and founding the National Health Society in Britain. She also mentored Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman to qualify as a physician in Britain.

When did Elizabeth Blackwell become a doctor?

She gained her medical degree on 23 January 1849

Did Elizabeth Blackwell know Florence Nightingale?

Yes, they met in London through mutual friends, though they disagreed on the role women should play in medical care.

She chose medicine, not because she loved science or cared about healing (in fact, she thought sickness was a sign of weakness and found bodily functions disgusting) but because it was an unusually clear way to prove her point. If a woman managed to take a seat in a medical school lecture hall and pass all the examinations required for a diploma, who could argue she wasn’t qualified to be a doctor?

After a sheaf of rejections, Blackwell enrolled at the tiny, rural Geneva Medical College in western New York State. Her acceptance was something of a farce: the faculty punted the appalling idea of admitting a woman to the students, who found it hilarious and – assuming it was a practical joke – voted unanimously to welcome her. She graduated at the top of the class in 1849, having won the unequivocal respect of her classmates by virtue of her brilliance and discipline.

Outside the college, people tended to think one of two things: either she was wicked, or she was insane. What kind of woman would choose to study the body in the company of men? Acutely aware of the loneliness of her professional path, Blackwell recruited her sister Emily, five years younger, to follow her into medicine.

Elizabeth Blackwell, the ‘female physician’

Medical school included little if any exposure to actual patients, and graduates emerged with a frightening level of ignorance. Blackwell left for Europe in April 1849, three months after graduating, to pursue practical training in Paris, where she studied at a public maternity hospital and was left blind in one eye after contracting an infection from a patient. She moved on to London, where she walked the wards of St Bartholomew’s hospital and found a fascinating new friend in the young Florence Nightingale.

Returning to New York in 1851, she discovered that the very phrase ‘female physician’ alienated her from potential patients. A female physician, in the parlance of the time, was an abortionist, someone operating in the shadows and on the wrong side of the law. The thriving practice she had hoped for did not materialise. But Emily soon joined her, with her own medical degree – as hard-earned as her sister’s – and together they opened the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children in 1857. Poor women weren’t as picky about the sex of their doctor, and the infirmary would also come to provide a place for the slowly growing numbers of female medical graduates to finish their training. It was the first hospital entirely staffed by women.

Immediately after the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, the Blackwell sisters called a meeting of their donors and supporters, and drafted an appeal to the women of New York. In response, thousands attended the first organisational meeting of the Women’s Central Association of Relief, which evolved into the United States Sanitary Commission, the largest civilian organisation of the war. The Blackwells supervised the selection and training of nurses to send to the front – but eventually withdrew from the war effort when it became clear that male doctors were not willing to acknowledge their participation on equal terms.

They turned their attention to their next achievement: the opening of the Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary in 1869, with an emphasis on academic rigour and practical training that set it above the schools for men from which the Blackwells had received their degrees.

Once the infirmary and its college were solidly established, Elizabeth left Emily – the more dedicated practitioner ­– to run them and returned to England, the place that she had always thought of as home, and where she had become the first woman to be included in Britain’s Medical Register. Having inspired pioneering female doctors including Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Sophia Jex-Blake, she veered away from practice and toward public health advocacy, campaigning against the Contagious Diseases Acts – which forcibly hospitalized prostitutes instead of focusing on the men who infected them – and becoming a founder of the National Health Society, with its motto being “Prevention is better than cure”. She came to believe that a woman doctor should be a teacher armed with science, and spent the last decades of her life ensconced in a seaside cottage in Hastings, faithfully attended by her adopted daughter Kitty.

Why is Elizabeth Blackwell famous?

It’s tempting to read the Blackwell story simply as a tale of trailblazing women, but the reality was more complicated. Elizabeth Blackwell looked askance at the emerging women’s rights movement. She believed that it was foolish to give women the vote before they had wrested their own ideological independence from their menfolk. She disagreed with Florence Nightingale’s belief that the true role of women in health was as nurses, and disagreed with her own physician sister, Emily, about the proper role of a female doctor. Elizabeth came to see her mission more in terms of public health, while Emily strove to be a physician, surgeon, and medical professor the equal of any man.

But Elizabeth was not interested in being adorable or pleasing anyone. She was a complicated, prickly, imperfect, very real heroine, and her flaws are inseparable from her world-changing achievement.

Janice P Nimura is the author of The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women and Women to Medicine (WW Norton & Company, 2021)

Advertisement

This content was first published by HistoryExtra in 2021