Strong and Dedicated: Elizabeth Blackwell – Earns Medical Degree in U.S. graduated January 23, 1849

At a graduation ceremony at a church in Geneva, New York on January 23, 1849, Geneva Medical College bestows a medical degree upon Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in the United States to receive one. Despite the near-uniform opposition of her fellow students and medical professionals, Blackwell pursued her calling with an iron will and dedicated her life to treating the sick and furthering the cause of women in medicine.

Blackwell was inspired to pursue medicine by a dying friend who said her ordeal would have been better had she had a female physician. Most male physicians trained as apprentices to experienced doctors; there were few medical colleges and none that accepted women, though a few women also apprenticed and became unlicensed physicians. Blackwell faced discrimination and obstacles in college: professors forced her to sit separately at lectures and often excluded her from labs; local townspeople shunned her as a “bad” woman for defying her gender role. Blackwell eventually earned the respect of professors and classmates, graduating first in her class in 1849.

She continued her training at London and Paris hospitals, though doctors there relegated her to midwifery or nursing.  She began to emphasize preventative care and personal hygiene, recognizing that male doctors often caused epidemics by failing to wash their hands between patients. In 1851, Dr. Blackwell returned to New York City, where discrimination against female physicians meant few patients and difficulty practicing in hospitals and clinics. With help from Quaker friends, Blackwell opened a small clinic to treat poor women; in 1857, she opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children with her sister Dr. Emi Blackwell and colleague Dr. Zakrzewska. During the Civil War, the Blackwell sisters trained nurses for Union hospitals.

In 1868, Blackwell opened a medical college in New York City. A year later, she placed her sister in charge and returned permanently to London, where in 1875, she became a professor of gynecology at the new London School of Medicine for Women. She also helped found the National Health Society and published several books, including an autobiography, Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women (1895).

Despite being snubbed by the local community, referred to by the dean of faculty as an “inconvenience” to male students, and asked not to attend lectures on the male reproductive system, Blackwell persevered. She excelled in all of her studies, from anatomy to material medica, or the study of the origin, preparation, dosage, and administration of drugs. In January 1849, Blackwell graduated first in her class, after which the college closed its doors to women.

After medical school Blackwell faced additional difficulties. The dean never wrote the recommendation letters he once promised her. She was refused jobs in numerous hospitals; she had difficulty finding patients who would be treated by a female doctor and consequently she had trouble establishing her own practice. . Blackwell returned to the U.S. in 1851 to open a private practice with her sister Emily, who was studying to become a doctor in Chicago and facing opposition due to the controversy caused by Elizabeth’s accomplishments.

SOURCE: “Brooklyn Museum: Elizabeth Blackwell”. .brooklynmuseum.org.; Porter D (November 2008). “Three 19th-Century Women Doctors”. JAMA. 300 (18): 2182.; .nps.gov/people/dr-elizabeth-blackwell