Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Elizabeth Blackwell, First in Medicine

Elizabeth Blackwell (b. 3 February 1821)


Born in England, Elizabeth Blackwell was eleven years old when her family relocated to the United States, first to New York, later to Cincinnati. After her father's death in 1838, Blackwell took up a series of teaching position before deciding to pursue a career in medicine. 
Elizabeth Blackwell

But it was not easy for a woman to get a medical education. No woman in the United States had been able to enroll in medical degree programs. After resistance and denial from all of the institutions where she hoped to study, she was, at last, accepted as a student by Geneva Medical College (now Hobart and William Smith) in 1847--although, as the story goes, administrators would not admit her without a vote of the male students enrolled in the medical school. Convinced the request was a joke, the male students unanimously approved her application. On 23 January 1849, she graduated, becoming the first woman in the United States to earn an M.D.

Blackwell traveled to Europe in order to continue her medical education. She worked at clinics in Paris, at La Maternit√©, a maternity (or "lying in") hospital, and then at St. Bartholomew's in London before returning to New York. Since it was impossible for her to find a position as a doctor, she set up her own medical practice in 1851, and opened her own clinic in 1853. By 1857, this had become the New York Dispensary for Poor Women and Children. In November 1868, along with her sister, physician Emily Blackwell, she opened the Women's Medical College. A year later, she returned to England, where she would live for the remainder of her life.

Because medical degrees earned outside Great Britain were recognized under the Medical Act of 1858, Blackwell had been able to have her named entered in the British medical register in 1859--she was the first woman on the register. In England she helped to organize the National Health Society and established the London School of Medicine for Women. She died in England in 1910.

In addition to her long career in medicine--and her many firsts in the medical field--Blackwell worked tirelessly for a number of social, educational, and medical causes. 

There are many excellent biographies, including several for children. In addition, Blackwell's own autobiography, Pioneering Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women is in print, but it is also available in a free Kindle version. The online entry for Blackwell at the National Women's History Museum has an extended biography as well as links to many online resources.