ALAN WEBER: Although America likes to claim Elizabeth Blackwell as the first American woman doctor, she was actually born in England in 1821. Her father, Samuel Blackwell, brought his family to the United States in 1832. He was an abolitionist who believed in the equality of both the sexes and races.
Elizabeth was educated by the same tutors hired for her brothers. Her sister-in-law, Lucy Stone, became a leader in the women's rights movement. But Blackwell herself never became a full supporter of the many 19th-century women's rights movements. She believed that any change in the social condition of women should come about gradually and that radical action would only generate opposition.
Blackwell was wiry, active, and fond of long walks. After Samuel Blackwell died of a fever in Cincinnati in 1838, Elizabeth and her sisters started a boarding school to support the family. She considered studying medicine after her friend, Mary Donaldson, died from a disease of a, quote, "delicate nature." Blackwell's friends told her before she died, if I could have been treated by a lady doctor, my worst sufferings would have been spared me.
Blackwell's decision to become a doctor was also influenced by her feelings about marriage. Although she had several suitors, she shrank at the thought of an intimate association with men, probably because marriages at the time did not allow women to act as full intellectual and emotional partners.
I felt more determined than ever to become a physician and thus placed a strong barrier between me and all ordinary marriage. I must have something to engross my thoughts, some object in life which will fill this vacuum and prevent this sad wearing away of the heart. I finally made up my mind to devote myself to medical study with the belief that I should thus place an insuperable barrier between myself and those disturbing influences which I could not wisely yield to but could not otherwise stifle.
Blackwell approached several doctor friends for advice. When they unanimously agreed that it would be impossible for a woman to obtain medical education, her passion to become a doctor developed almost into an evangelical mission. 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.
Elizabeth accepted a teaching position in Ashville, North Carolina with Reverend John Dixon in order to have access to his medical library. Dixon closed his school, however, and sent her to his brother, Dr. Samuel Dixon, in Charleston, South Carolina, where she was permitted to study his medical books.
With the encouragement of Dixon, she left Charleston to study privately at Dr. Allan's school in Philadelphia, which at the time was the chief seat of medical learning in America. Through a fortunate accident, Blackwell was admitted to Geneva College in New York as a medical student.
When Blackwell applied to the school, the medical faculty decided to let the student body decide the issue of admitting a female student. They required a unanimous vote from the students. And in this way, they could avoid responsibility for rejecting Blackwell.
Some students and faculty were seriously in favor of equal educational opportunity, and some saw it as a unique experiment. But the majority probably thought it would simply be a pleasant diversion and that she would never complete the program.
The dean of Geneva college, Dr. Charles Alford Lee, was well aware that admitting Blackwell would bring national public attention to his school. Dr. Lee wrote "this step might prove quite a good advertisement for the college. If there is no other advantage to be gained, it will attract so much attention." The students voted unanimously to admit her, except for one student holdout who was beaten into submission by the other members of the school.
Blackwell's first entry into the college of rough and riotous medical students was described years later by one of the students present, Dr. Stephen Smith. Smith wrote, "One morning, all unexpectedly, a lady entered the lecture room with the professor. She was quite small of stature, plainly dressed, appeared diffident and retiring, but had a firm and determined expression of face. Her entry into the bedlam of confusion acted like magic on every student. Each hurriedly sought his seat, and the utmost silence prevailed. For the first time, a lecture was given without the slightest interruption, and every word could be heard as distinctly as it would be if there had been but a single person in the room. The sudden transformation of this class from a band of lawless desperadoes to gentlemen by the mere presence of a lady proved to be permanent in its effects."
The residents of Geneva, New York, however, did not know what to make of this determined transplanted English woman. Blackwell later wrote, "the theory was fully established either that I was a bad woman whose designs would gradually become evident or that being insane, an outbreak of insanity would soon be apparent." The local inhabitants decided to avoid and ostracize her.
Blackwell received her degree on January 23rd, 1849, and the news was treated unfavorably in the press in both America and England. But at Geneva, the experiment was over. When Elizabeth's sister Emily applied to Geneva College, she was denied admission. Emily eventually obtained her M.D. In 1854 from Cleveland Medical College.
One common difficulty that all women practitioners faced in the 19th century was that even if they could get medical training, hospital work, today what we would call the residency or internship, was all but closed to them. Blackwell, however, did find work in Philadelphia at Blockley Alms House.
The medical head of the hospital, Dr. Blockley, was kind and helpful. But when Blackwell first entered the medical wards for clinical study, the young resident physicians walked out of the room. She accompanied her cousin Kenyon Blackwell back to England in 1849 and was warmly received by the top medical men, probably as an interesting curiosity.
While syringing the eye of an infant, she contracted a serious eye infection. Doctors were forced to remove her infected eye, and she wore a glass eye for the rest of her life. With her vision impaired, her intention of becoming a surgeon had to be abandoned.
During her time in Europe, she developed a pragmatic realism about the situation of women and men working side by side at medical work. "When the novelty of the innovation of a woman doctor has worn off, men and women will be valuable friends in medicine. But for a time, that cannot be."
In 1851, she returned to New York City to set up practice. Patients kept aloof at first. She complained of isolation and a lack of medical colleagues and sympathetic practitioners to help her further her medical knowledge as well as gossip and insolent letters. Although she was fully conscious of the pioneering trail she was blazing, this social isolation took its toll.
"I am glad I and not another have to bear this pioneer work. I understand now why this life has never been lived before. It is hard to live against every species of social opposition. I should like a little fun now and then. Life is altogether too sober."
In 1857, with the help of her sister Emily and Marie Zakrzewska, Elizabeth opened the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children on 64 Bleecker Street. The attending physicians were women, and women now served on the board of trustees. She noted the many obstacles she faced in an 1864 annual report of The New York Infirmary.
"A host of objections were raised by those whom the early friends of the institution attempted to interest in their effort. They were told that no one will let a house for the purpose that female doctors will be looked upon with so much suspicion that the police would interfere, that if deaths occurred, their death certificates would not be recognized, that they would be resorted to by classes and persons whom it would be an insult to be called upon to deal with, that without men as resident physicians, they would not be able to control the patients, that if any accident occurred, not only the medical profession, but the public would blame the trustees for supporting such an undertaking, and finally, that they would never be able to collect money enough for so unpopular an effort."
Largely through Blackwell's efforts, the New York Infirmary survives to this day. Elizabeth Blackwell died in 1910. Her influence on the medical profession was immense, and she directly inspired the career of another medical pioneer-- Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.
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This is a story of perseverance and courage, but also about disappointment and social prejudice as women fought to establish themselves as respected health care practitioners in Europe and America.
This video is part 2 of 5 in the Storming the Citadel series.