American Medical Biographies/Blackwell, Elizabeth

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Blackwell, Elizabeth (1821–1910)

Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree, was born in Bristol, England, February 3, 1821, the daughter of Samuel Blackwell, a sugar refiner of progressive ideas and prepossessed in favor of American institutions. In 1832 he settled in New York with his family, and being the only man in America who then understood the process of refining sugar by the use of vacuum plans, he was in a fair way to make a fortune. But his refinery was burned, and in 1838 he moved to Cincinnati, partly with the hope of introducing the cultivation of beet sugar, and thereby dealing a severe blow at slavery by making the slave-grown cane-sugar unprofitaable. But he died soon after, leaving his family dependent upon their own exertions. The mother and the three oldest daughters opened a school and Elizabeth's uncommon strength of character showed itself in her good discipline. The family continued their anti-slavery work and threw themselves ardently into the movement for the higher education of women.

When the brothers were old enough to go into business the school was given up, and Elizabeth went to Henderson, Kentucky, to teach a district school. She astonished the southern ladies by her courage in taking long walks through the woods when they were afraid of negroes and the savage dogs which abounded.

She was led to turn her attention to medicine through the severe illness of a woman friend. Medicine in itself was not attractive, but she believed there was need of women physicians. She wrote to several physicians about her plan and their replies were that the idea was good, but impossible. In 1845 she went to teach at Asheville, Nova Scotia, in the school kept by the Rev. John Dickson, who had previously been a doctor. Here she studied medicine privately, earning money by teaching. In 1847 she went to Philadelphia, studied anatomy under Dr. Allen, and applied for admission to each of the four medical colleges of that city, but in vain.

Applications to the large medical schools of New York also proving unsuccessful, she sent requests to twelve of the country colleges. Geneva consented. The medical class there of 150 students was composed of a riotous, boisterous, and unmanageable set, who had given the faculty and town much trouble. The letter was referred to the students for decision, and the announcement was received with most uproarious demonstrations of favor and extravagant speeches. The faculty received the unnanimous vote of approval with evident disfavor, but admitted the woman student. On Miss Blackwell's appearance in the lecture-rooms some weeks later the class was transformed by magic into an orderly body of students, and this continued throughout the term. Professors and students showed her every courtesy, and she was never molested after a few unsuccessful practical jokes. The outside public, however, greatly disapproved of her, and she was considered by them to be either a bad woman or insane.

She graduated in 1849. The event caused a considerable stir in England as well as in America, and Punch gave her some complimentary verses. In London and Paris where she next studied Dr. Blackwell made many valued friends including Lady Byron and Florence Nightingale. While a resident at La Maternité in Paris, Dr. Blackwell had the misfortune to contract a purulent ophthalmia, which cost her six months illness and the sight of one eye. In 1851 she returned to America and began practice in New York with her sister Emily who had gained her medical diploma in 1854 at the Cleveland Medical College. But it was still considered highly scandalous for a woman to be a doctor. Patients came slowly and socially she was ostracized. She even had difficulty in renting a respectable consulting-room. One landlady who sympathized with her lost all her other lodgers by taking her in and Elizabeth finally had to buy a house with borrowed money. The first time she called in consultation a man physician—a man eminent in the profession—he walked about the room exclaiming it was an extraordinary case, that he was in great difficulty; at first she was puzzled, for though the case of illness was severe, it was not unusual. At last she comprehended that he referred not to the patient but to the situation: could he without loss of professional dignity act as a consultant to a woman physician. He finally decided he could and became a firm friend of the woman physicians.

Not being allowed to practise in the existing dispensaries, she started a little one of her own in 1857, and, with her sister, Emily, and Dr. Marie Zakrzewska, founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. This was the first hospital conducted wholly by women, and met with strong opposition.

When the Civil War broke out Dr. Blackwell called a meeting to discuss the providing of trained nurses, and from this meeting grew the National Sanitary Aid Association. She also anticipated modern developments by organizing the services of sanitary visitors in the slums of New York.

In 1865 when the Woman's Medical College of New York Infirmary was founded, Dr. Blackwell occupied the chair of hygiene. When Cornell opened its medical department, the college was merged with that at Cornell.

After having established the New York Infirmary and College, feeling that perhaps she could do more for the cause in England she returned there in 1869. She took a house and began practice in London where she identified herself with the Medical Woman Movement, Woman's Suffrage and with Mrs. Josephine E. Butler in her seventeen years' war against state regulation of vice. In a short time her health failed, she could not stand the London climate, she traveled on the continent for a year or two and they bought a house at Hastings, living there until her death May 31, 1910, at the age of eighty-nine.

During her life at Hastings she kept up her London connections and interests and by her pen aided the movements in which she was interested.

Her most important book was "Counsel to Parents on the Moral Education of Children," 1876, which has been translated into French and German.

Other important writings were: "The Laws of Life," 1852; "Medicine as a Profession for Women," 1860; "The Religion of Health," 1869; "Wrong and Right Methods of Dealing with the Social Evil," 1883; "The Human Element in Sex," 1884; "Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women," 1895.

London Times, June 2, 1910.
N. Y. Evening Post, June 1, 1910.
Mary Putnam Jacobi, in "Woman's Work in America."
Personal information from Dr. Emily Blackwell.