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Elizabeth Blackwell

the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States

Elizabeth Blackwell

Elizabeth Blackwell was born in Counterslip, Bristol, England, on February 3, 1821, the third of nine children born to Samuel and Hannah (Lane) Blackwell. Her father was a sugar refiner who was well known in England for social activism, including advocating the abolition of slavery and church reform, as well as equal educational opportunities for girls. The family, along with four of Samuel Blackwell's unmarried sisters, emigrated to America in 1832 and eventually settled in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Samuel Blackwell died in 1838, after which Elizabeth, her two older sisters, Anna and Marian, and their mother opened a private school in Cincinnati. In 1842, Elizabeth took a teaching position in Henderson, Kentucky. Although the psoition paid well, Blackwell found life in Kentucky less than ideal and returned to Cincinnati after less than year.

According to tradition, Blackwell was inspired to study medicine after a friend who was dying (probably from uterine cancer) remarked that her treatment would be far more tolerable if administered by a woman rather than a man. In 1845 she accepted a teaching job in Asheville, North Carolina. There, she obtained lodging in the home of Reverend John Dickson, who had been a practicing physician before turning to the ministry. Dickinson gave Blackwell access to his medical books, further inspiring her desire to earn a medical degree. She moved to a new teaching position in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1846, but by then she was applying for admission into a medical school.

Blackwell had applied to, and been rejected by, every medical school in New York City, New York, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as well as twelve other schools in the northeast, when her application was received by Geneva Medical College (now Hobart College) in upstate New York. The traditional story says that the Geneva faculty allowed the all-male student body to vote on her admission, and that, believing the application to be a joke, it was accepted unanimously. Not believing that Blackwell was serious about attending medical school, the faculty and student body were very surprised when she showed up for her first classes. Although she initially faced ridicule and rejection and was prevented from attending lectures and labs deemed "too delicate for a woman," Blackwell gradually gained respect from many professors and fellow students. Between her two years at Geneva, Blackwell spent the summer at Blockley Almshouse in Philadelphia, where she was observed the city's poorest patients, many of whom were suffering from typhus.  She wrote her thesis on that disease, which she said was preventable with proper sanitation. On January 23, 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell graduated first in her class and became the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States.

After receiving her degree, Blackwell spent two years working at clinics in London, England, and Paris, France. She then studied midwifery at La Maternité in Paris, in the course of which she contracted an eye disease from a patient. The disease cost her her sight in one eye, forcing Blackwell to abandon any hope of becoming a surgeon.

Returning to New York City in 1851, Blackwell was unable to obtain employment with an established medical practice, so she opened an office in her home. She found it very difficult to attract patients, however, as most men refused to allow a woman to examine them and most women had to rely on a man's money in order to afford a doctor. Despite these difficulties, she gradually gained some measure of respect, and in 1853 was able to open a dispensary in a poor immigrant neighborhood. The dispensary was incorporated in 1854, and in 1856 Elizabeth was joined by younger sister Emily, the third woman to receive a medical degree in the United States. In 1857, the Blackwell sisters, along with Dr. Marie Zakrzewska (the second woman to earn a medical degree in the United States), founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children (which still operates today, as New York Downtown Hospital). In 1867, the women opened Women's Medical College, which, along with the Infirmary, provided training and experience for women doctors and medical care for the poor.

During the Civil War, the Blackwell sisters helped to organize the Women's Central Association of Relief, selecting and training nurses for service in the war. This venture helped to inspire the creation of the United States Sanitary Commission, and the Blackwells worked with this organization as well.

In 1869, Elizabeth left the operation of the Infirmary in Emily's hands and moved to England, where she spent the rest of her life. Forced to give up the practice of medicine due to worsening eyesight, she became a professor of gynecology at the London School of Medicine for Women (which she had helped found). She also helped found the National Health Society. In addition to teaching, she also maintained a fairly active lecture schedule, and also found time to write a number of books. She was forced to retire in 1907, however, after suffering serious injuries in a fall down a flight of stairs, and died in Hastings, Sussex, England, on May 31, 1910.


Changing the Face of Medicine National Library of Medicine
City Journal
National Women's History Museum

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This page was last updated on 01/23/2019.