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  • Sara Thompson

Elizabeth Blackwell – The Doctor Was In

By Sara Thompson

Special to the Enterprise

Image credit is Hobart and William Smith Colleges Archives.

Elizabeth Blackwell was born in February 1821 in England and was the third of nine children. In 1832 her family moved to America when her father’s sugar refinery burned down. Her parents insisted on educating all of their children and encouraged them to peruse their interests, an uncommon view of the time for girls and women. When Blackwell was 17, her father passed away and to support the family, Elizabeth and two of her sisters started a school for young women. Although she enjoyed teaching, she wanted to pursue other interests.

Blackwell was inspired to pursue medicine by an ailing friend who stated that her suffering may have been lessened if her physician had been a woman. While working different teaching jobs to raise money, Blackwell would stay with friends or acquaintances of her family that had medical experience and connections. She would study their medical books and journals in her spare time and applied to medical schools in New York and Philadelphia. In 1847, Blackwell was accepted to the Geneva Medical College in New York. At college she experienced much discrimination due to being a woman and not accepting her “place” in society. Despite these obstacles, she graduated top of her class in 1849, becoming the first woman to receive a medical degree in America.

After receiving her degree, she returned to Europe to continue her education. She continued to be met with resistance in both Britain and France and often being pushed away from physician positions and instead towards nursing and gynecology. During her time in Europe, she began to advocate for preventative care and better hygiene. She would accuse doctors of spreading more diseases than curing them by failing to wash their hands between patients. In 1851, Dr. Blackwell returned to New York with the hopes of opening her own practice.

With her sister, Emily Blackwell, who was the second woman to receive a medical degree in America, and colleague Dr. Marie Zakrzewska, the three women opened the New York Infirmary for Woman and Children. Part of their mission was to treat women and the poor. They also allowed women to intern and work as physicians. During the American Civil War, the Blackwell sisters trained many women to be nurses. Sadly, the Blackwell sisters had a falling out and Elizabeth moved back to Britain in 1896 and established a medical school for women with a former student in 1874 called the London School of Medicine for Women. Blackwell would continue to lecture until her retirement in 1877.

Dr. Blackwell would spend her retirement writing medical publications and an autobiography. In 1907, an aging Blackwell took a terrible fall down a flight of stairs, causing both mental and physical disabilities. In May 1910, she passed away at her home after suffering a stroke. Throughout her career, Blackwell was an advocate for women’s equality in the medical field, preventative care, and better hygiene and cleanliness in hospitals.

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