When Elizabeth Blackwell was graduated as a doctor of medicine in 1849, she became the first woman doctor in the United States. Her enrolment in the Medical Register of the United Kingdom in 1859 made her Europe’s first modern woman doctor.
She was born on February 3rd 1821, in Bristol, England, and was one of nine children. Her father Samuel Blackwell was a prosperous sugar refiner, and immigrated with his family to New York City in 1832. Their refinery unfortunately did not prosper, and in 1838 they moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, her father died a few months after the move. The need for the boys to find work and the girls to start school did not prevent them from aiding escaped slaves or from participating in intellectual movements.
It was in 1844 that Elizabeth Blackwell became determined to be a doctor. Because no medical school would admit her, she studied privately with doctors in the South and in Philadelphia. In 1847 the Geneva Medical School of western New York accepted her, She was the only female student among 150 men. The acceptance evoked a storm of ridicule and criticism, but in spite this she pursued her studies. In 1849 she graduated at the head of her class.
Paris then was foremost medical centre, so she went there to undertake advanced studies, but Paris doctors proved as intolerant as their American colleagues. They would not permit her to study as a doctor. She was forced to enter a large maternity hospital as a student midwife. There she contracted an infection that caused her to lose her sight in one eye. After convalescence, she went to London, where she was permitted to continue her studies, at Bartholomew’s Hospital.
On her return to New York City in 1850, she was not permitted to practice in any hospital, so she fought for her own and other women’s rights to learn and practice. She started the New York Infirmary for Women and Children aided by her sister Emily and other women who became doctors and by several tolerant Quakers. Emily had graduated at the Medical College in Cleveland Ohio in 1854. Her leadership in meeting the medical problems presented by the Civil War won her recognition. With her sister she opened a medical college for women in her hospital.
Dr Blackwell wrote and lectured. A series of lectures which she delivered in England in 1859 brought her recognition in Britain. After the Civil War she settled in England. Her work and her friendship with Florence Nightingale and other intellectual leaders of the day opened the way for English women to enter the field of medicine. In 1870 she opened her first private practice in London. When the London School of Medicine for Women opened in 1874, she lectured in midwifery. In 1879 she moved out of London, and took the lease on Rock House, Hastings.
Her lectures and books dealt largely with social hygiene and with preventive medicine. On May 12th 1871, Elizabeth Blackwell, Barbara Leigh Smith, George Hastings, Anna Goldsmid and Ernest Hart, founded the National Health Society, its motto ‘Prevention is better than cure’.