BMJ Obituary of Elizabeth Blackwell
Elizabeth Blackwell, M.D.,
Consulting Physician, New Hospital for Women.
Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell died at Hastings on May 31st, in her ninetieth year, after a long illness, which would seem to have originated in a fall while on a visit to Scotland in 1907. She was the first woman to be admitted to the British Medical Register, and her success is the more notable in that, apart from difficulties brought about by the total novelty of the idea of a woman studying medicine, she had to contend with one experienced by many male students, namely, lack of means. She was the daughter of a Bristol sugar refiner, who, emigrating to the United States in 1832, died a few years later, leaving hardly any fortune behind him and a family of nine children, headed by three girls, of whom Elizabeth Blackwell, then aged 17, was the youngest. To keep the family going this trio opened a small school, carrying it on successfully for four years, until a brother was old enough to begin a business life. Elizabeth Blackwell was then persuaded, somewhat against her will, to see if medicine did not offer her a career, and finally was accepted as a pupil at the medical school carried on at Geneva University in the State of New York. She was admitted to the school as the result of a vote among its students, who, from beginning to end, treated her with admirable courtesy. On one occasion the anatomy teacher warned her to absent herself during a particular dissection, but she replied that she was a student, and a student only, and would attend it, unless her fellow-students wished her not to do so. The result was that she took her place as usual, her fellow-students carefully abstaining from any kind of conduct which might possibly accentuate the awkwardness of the situation. On leaving this school with the degree of M.D. in 1849, she spent two years in Europe, dividing her time between St. Bartholomew's, where she was welcomed by the then dean of the school, the late Sir James Paget, and the Maternity Hospital at Paris. While at the latter she had an unfortunate accident, losing the sight of one eye, which became infected while she was treating a patient with gonorrhoea. This put an end to her hopes of figuring in surgery rather than in medicine.
On returning to the United States she began to practice in partnership with one of her sisters, eventually establishing a dispensary out of which grew the New York Infirmary for Women. She also gave lectures to women on the laws of life in reference to the physical education of girls. In 1859 she paid a further visit to England, during which she lectured on medicine as a profession for women. Among one of her audiences was Miss Garrett, now Mrs. Garrett-Anderson, who shortly afterwards began, in her turn, the study of medicine, qualifying as the first woman doctor of English education in 1865. Just before her return to America it was suggested to Miss Blackwell that she should get her name inscribed in the recently instituted Medical Register, and but for this almost accidental circumstance she might not have spent the last forty years of her existence in this country. She only returned to it after some eight years' further work in America, during which she played an active part in the organization of women’s nursing during the civil war. One outcome of this work was the establishment of a medical school for women in which Miss Blackwell, who, in her visits to England, had come under the influence of Miss Nightingale, held the Chair of Hygiene.
When she finally settled in England she continued to co-operate in the movement which has since led to the frank recognition of the medical profession as a proper sphere for women, and to the establishment, as we recently pointed out, of as many as 476 registered medical women in practice in England alone.
For a long time Dr. Blackwell carried on an active practice partly in London, partly in Hastings. Of late years she had not been seen much in London, but she was always certain to be acclaimed at the London (R. F. H.) School of Medicine for Women, where at one time she lectured on gynaecology. She also held, up to the time of her death, a position on the consulting staff of the New Hospital for Women. She was the author of a good many publications; among the more important being The Laws of Life in Relation to the Physical Education of Girls, The Human Element in Sex, The Religion of Health, and The Moral Education of the Young in Relation to Sex in Medical and Social Aspects.
There are two points never to be forgotten in speaking of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell: one is that, although much of her life was passed in America, she did not go to that country until she was 11 years old, and always regarded herself as English. The second is that, although never married, she was, and ever remained, one of the most womanly of women. It was, indeed, her womanly character, coupled with her intense earnestness, which mainly enabled her to overcome the difficulties in her path, and won for her personally, if not for her ambitions in respect of women as a whole, the esteem and good wishes of all possible opponents. Although she appears to have turned to medicine with some reluctance in the first place, she soon acquired a belief that she had a definite "call," and retained this belief to the end.
The interment took place at Kilmun, and the funeral service was attended by representatives of various medical and other societies connected with the work in which Dr. Blackwell took so prominent a part.