Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell: First Woman Medical Doctor

Profile of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, a British immigrant, who became the first woman to receive a degree from a medical school in 1849.

Elizabeth Blackwell was born on February 3, 1821 near Bristol, England. Her parents were Samuel and Hannah Blackwell, who were wealthy owners of a sugar refinery. Elizabeth was educated at home because her family did not belong to the Church of England, which controlled the schools.

When the family's sugar refining business burned down in 1832, the family moved to America. The family settled in New York City where Blackwell's father became involved in the antislavery movement. After suffering financial losses in 1838, the family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. Shortly after arriving in Ohio, Blackwell's father died and her mother opened a boarding school to support the family. Blackwell taught at the school for four years.

The turning point in Blackwell's life came after a conversation she had with a friend who was dying of cancer. Her friend believed that women physicians would be better able to care for women patients. She encouraged Elizabeth to study medicine. Elizabeth was at first reluctant, but because of her belief in the education of women, she decided to pursue a career in medicine. In her autobiography, she wrote, "The idea of winning a doctor's degree gradually assumed the aspect of a great moral struggle, and the moral fight possessed immense attraction for me."

Blackwell taught in North and South Carolina schools to pay for medical school. She studied privately with male physicians and began to apply to medical schools in 1847. After being rejected by major medical schools, she was accepted by the Geneva Medical College in New York State. When Blackwell was first admitted to the College, she was not taken seriously. However, as a result of her intelligence and determination, she became one of the most admired students in her class. In 1849, she graduated and became the first woman medical doctor.

Blackwell desired to become a surgeon and went to France to further her medical studies. France was a leader in the field of clinical medicine. French physicians believed in carefully observing and examining patients in order to diagnose them properly. They used several new instruments to perform their examinations such as the stethoscope for listening to the heart. Blackwell was unable to pursue her studies because of a tragic accident. While washing the infected eye of a patient, contaminated fluid spattered into her own eye. Her eye became infected and she lost sight in it.

In 1851, after the accident, Blackwell returned to New York. She was unable to find work in a hospital or clinic as a physician because she was a woman. She spent her time instead writing and lecturing on the subject of preventive medicine. She was an advocate for proper nutrition and sanitation practices. To keep her company, she adopted an Irish orphan named Kitty Barry. Kitty remained a devoted child to Blackwell throughout her life.

At one of Dr. Blackwell's lectures, some Quaker women in the audience decided to become her patients. She became well-known and her practice grew. In 1853, she established a clinic for poor women. Blackwell's sister, Emily, had also become a physician and she joined her at the clinic. In 1857, the clinic became the New York Infirmary for Women and Children.

Blackwell spent several years planning for the establishment of a medical school for women. In 1868, she succeeded, and the Woman's Medical College of the New York Infirmary opened. Blackwell instituted high standards for the college. She offered entrance examinations, conducted a three-year course of study, provided students with practical clinical experience and created an independent examining board of prominent physicians.

After establishing the hospital, Blackwell had her sister take over the administration. Blackwell returned to England where she spent the remainder of her life. In 1857, she became char of gynecology at the London School of Medicine for Women in England. In 1907, Dr. Blackwell fell down a flight of stairs and never recovered. She died on May 31, 1910. Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell was a pioneer for women in the field of medicine and because of her contributions to providing medical training for women, the profession has been greatly enhanced.

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