Person

Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell

https://collections.nlm.nih.gov/catalog/nlm:nlmuid-101448324-img
Full face, head and shoulders portrait of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell. Artist unknown.

Public domain. Courtesy National Library of Medicine.

Quick Facts

Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in the United States to earn a medical degree. She became a lifelong advocate for female doctors.

Born in Bristol, England in 1821, Blackwell moved with her family to the United States at the age of 11. Her father Samuel made sure his daughters got a good education. When Samuel died in 1838, several of the Blackwell women became schoolteachers to provide for the family. Teaching was one of the only careers open to white, middle-class women during most of the 1800s.

After the family’s finances stabilized, Elizabeth looked for a more interesting line of work. Though she had felt “disgust” at the study of the body and physiology as a younger student, the experience of a sick female friend eventually changed her mind. Before she died, this friend told Elizabeth that if a “lady doctor” had cared for her, she would have suffered less. She encouraged Elizabeth to use her brains and energy to become a physician.

Blackwell wrote to several doctors she knew for advice on how to proceed. They all told her it would be impossible. Even if she could get admitted to a medical school, there was no way she would be able to graduate and practice. A few even advised her to disguise herself as a man. But the discouragement only made her more determined to succeed. “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,” she wrote. She saved her money from teaching and set out to win the fight.

Blackwell applied to more than a dozen medical schools. She received several rejections before finally, in October 1847, an acceptance letter arrived from Geneva Medical College in upstate New York. Although the male students mostly accepted her, she had to fight for access to a complete education. At first, she was excluded from observing surgical demonstrations. She had to insist that she be considered “a student simply,” not treated differently because of her sex.

Dr. Blackwell graduated in 1849 to great public interest and approval. In need of further training that was still not available in the United States, she studied for a few years in England and France. Unfortunately, her goal of becoming a surgeon was thwarted when she contracted an infection that caused her to lose her left eye.

In the early 1850s, Dr. Blackwell returned to the United States. She and two other female doctors—Dr. Marie Zakrzewska and Blackwell’s younger sister Dr. Emily Blackwell—established the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children (now New York-Presbyterian Lower Manhattan Hospital).[1] They treated poor patients and provided medical training for women.

In her later years, Blackwell wrote several books on medicine and an autobiography. She continued to advocate for women in medicine until old age and poor health limited her activities. She died in England in 1910.

Notes

[1] Dr. Blackwell's former home and medical practice was located in the building that still stands at 80 University Place, part of the Greenwich Village Historic District.

Bibliography

Berman, Andrew. "Elizabeth Blackwell's NYC: The Historic Sites Where America's First Female Doctor Made Her Mark." 6sqft.com. May 17, 2018. https://www.6sqft.com/elizabeth-blackwells-nyc-the-historic-sites-where-americas-first-female-doctor-made-her-mark/.

Blackwell, Elizabeth. Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women: Autobiographical Sketches by Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell. 1895. https://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/blackwell/pioneer/pioneer.html.

"Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell." Changing the Face of Medicine, U.S. National Library of Medicine. Last modified June 3, 2015. https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_35.html.

Harrison, Pat. "Elizabeth Blackwell's Struggle to Become a Doctor." Schlesinger Library Newsletter, Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. 2013. https://www.radcliffe.harvard.edu/news/schlesinger-newsletter/elizabeth-blackwells-struggle-become-doctor.


Article by Ella Wagner, Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education.

Last updated: April 12, 2021