Elizabeth Blackwell

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Today, March 30th, is National Doctor’s Day. Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) was the first woman to graduate from a U.S. medical school as a trained physician.  She received her M.D. degree in 1849 from Geneva Medical College (now Hobart College).

She was born in 1821 in England, the third of nine children. Her father believed his children, including his daughters, should be well-educated and he hired private tutors for them. In 1832, the family moved to the U.S., eventually settling in Cincinnati. Her first job was as a schoolteacher. She was inspired to become a doctor by a dying friend who expressed her wish that she had been able to have a woman doctor.

She began preparing herself for medical school by studying medicine privately with physician friends. She was rejected from about 30 medical schools to which she applied, but was eventually admitted to Geneva Medical College. Her admission to Geneva was by an unusual procedure, with the dean and faculty putting the question of her admission to the student body—150 male medical students—and their vote would have to be unanimous in her favor for admission. Thinking this was a joke, the students all voted yes. Thus, she was admitted.

She faced harsh gender discrimination during medical school from the school’s administration, her professors, other students, and people in the community. The dean said she was an “inconvenience” to the male students. She was excluded from some lectures, including lectures on the male reproductive system. Nevertheless, she graduated first in her class.

Following her graduation in 1849, she continued her medical studies in Europe, first in England and then in Paris. Although she was accepted at La Maternité in Paris as a student midwife rather than as a resident, her outstanding work attracted the attention of the foremost obstetrician of the day, who advocated on her behalf, saying that he thought she would make an outstanding obstetrician.

She returned to the U.S. to start her own practice. She had few patients, which she believed was due to gender stereotypes about women physicians. In 1953, she established a public clinic, called New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children (which is now part of NYU Downtown Hospital). During the Civil War, she helped train nurses, and continued to advocate for medical education for women. Then, in 1868, with the help of Florence Nightingale, she founded the Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary. In addition to treating patients, the infirmary provided a place where women could receive medical education including clinical training, as they were rarely accepted to traditional internships.

In 1869, she gave her sister (who had been the third woman to graduate from a U.S. medical school) control over the New York Infirmary and moved to London permanently, where she became a professor of gynecology at the London School of Medicine for Women, and she helped establish the National Health Society. She was the first woman to be listed on England’s General Medical Council Registry.

After her retirement in 1880, she continued to advocate for reform of many medical issues, including preventative medicine, personal hygiene, women’s right to medical education, and medical ethics, among other things. She mentored many women through medical school and into careers as physicians. She published an autobiography in 1895 called “Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women.” She said, “My whole life is devoted unreservedly to the service of my sex. The study and practice of medicine is in my thought but one means to a great end … the true ennoblement of women.”

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