On Jan 22 1849, aged 28, Elizabeth Blackwell, born in Britain, became the first female physician in the United States of America.
Having been rejected from every medical school she applied to, she finally turned to a small, private, school, the Geneva Medical College (in Geneva, NY, not Switzerland). Blackwell walked in, ready to be denied, but an all male student representation voted to admit her, forcing the chancellor to turn the school (which was financed by said male student’s rich families) to admit Blackwell and open its doors to female students.
Today, Geneva is known as SUNY and rightfully proud of that day.
That day, her admission to medical school, didn’t come easy for Blackwell. Her father lost his fortune in sugar refining in a blazing fire that destroyed their home in Bristol, UK. Out of most of his money, he moved his family to NYC to become an abolitionist, unknowingly shaping Dr. Blackwell’s future at the dinner table in discussions around slavery, women’s rights, and child labor.
The Making of a Metal Medic
She became a teacher at age 17, weeks after her father died, working in education reform soon thereafter, but found herself more and more drawn into medicine. The needed impetus happened shortly after her twentieth birthday, when an acquaintance mentioned that she would have probably not suffered as much, had a female physician cared for her.
She converted to Unitarianism, a more liberal form of religion, not as judgmental about females working in traditionally male jobs, and moved to North Carolina to teach music. There she met and moved into a room at the Reverend John Dickinson’s house. Dickinson had been a physician before becoming a minister and opening a school. He was more than excited to see Blackwell interested in this career. He lent her his books and taught her privately. She learned as much as she could, only leaving the library to run a Sunday school for former slaves.
After Dickinson lost his own school, she moved to Charleston to live with his brother, a physician. Sam Dickinson pushed her to apply in Philadelphia, promising to lend her the missing money to do so. A friend of Dickinson’s, Dr. Allen, boarded her for free and privately taught her anatomy while she applied to medical schools, carrying references from all three men, each well regarded as experts in their field… no one wanted her.
In the fall of 1847, having been turned away at many schools, Blackwell applied to Geneva College. Here, the Chancellor and Dean disagreed, the Dean finding the though intriguing, the Chancellor fully opposed. As was the rule for such cases, a panel of 150 student representatives was polled. Unlike other events, however, this time, the Chancellor insisted, one vote against her would cause her denial.
The student body voted, unanimously, to accept her.
Between the two terms of her time in medical school, she returned to Philadelphia, working in a hospital for the poor. She graduated, 19 months later, on January 22, 1849.
The Dean, Dr. Charles Lee, who had voted to admit Blackwell conferred her degree, then bowed deeply. As did the President. To thunderous applause.
Life didn’t get much easier for Dr. Blackwell. She moved to Europe where, no matter the country or hospital, she was treated as a nurse, not a full physician. Only when she arrived at La Maternité and met Paul Dubois, one of the greatest Obstetricians of his time, did she receive training. At the conclusion of her time with him, Dubois made it clear, in writing, that she was probably slated to be the best OB in the United States, male or female.
A few days later, while treating an infant with conjunctivitis, she contaminated her own eye, losing sight in it shortly thereafter. This ended her aspirations in surgery.
She returned to the US shortly thereafter, opening her own practice, but still faced sexism, leading to few patients. Female medical practitioners were seen as abortionists and little more, so no one came for other complaints lest the neighbors would talk.
She started lecturing in 1853 and began to personally mentor the few women who had begun to study medicine after Blackwell had kicked open the door. She opened, together with one of those students, a clinic for Women and Children in 1857. Among her mentees was Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first female physician, mayor, and medical school dean in the UK.
When the Civil War broke out, she once again faced adversity in her plans to train female nurses for the front lines, but ultimately succeeded in establishing a training clinic for Union nurses. She and her nurses are credited with saving thousands of lives over the course of the war.
A lifelong close friend of Florence Nightingale, the two had a falling out over the role of women in wars. Blackwell saw them as physicians, Nightingale as nurses, both insisting their respective professions being the better suited to treat and heal.
Financially now stable from a number of investments, Dr. Blackwell turned towards mentorship, the setup of women-run medical schools, and societal change in Britain.
She became a campaigner against contraceptives, premarital sex and any counseling in this regard by physicians, and turned into a fervent vaccine opponent.
In 1907, she fell down a set of stairs, leaving her physically impaired and with declining mental health. She died on May 31 1910 in Britain, her headstone can be found in Kilmun, Scotland. She was the first female to receive an obituary in the Lancet.