This year marks the 200th anniversary of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell’s birth. As the first woman to receive an M.D. degree from an American medical school, Blackwell overcame many obstacles and laid a foundation for American women physicians. During her lifetime she supported medical education for women and helped many other women’s careers.
On the morning of Tuesday, January 23, 1849, a young woman ascended the platform of the Presbyterian church in Geneva, N.Y., and received from the hands of the President of Geneva Medical College a diploma conferring upon her the degree of Doctor of Medicine. Thus, after many years of determined effort, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to complete a course of study at a medical college and receive the M.D. degree.
Born in England in 1821, Elizabeth moved to America with her family when she was a child. After her father’s early death, she took up teaching to help support the family. Elizabeth found the work unpleasant and uninspiring. She craved an occupation that satisfied her intellect as well as her idealistic and religious nature. Then a dying friend confided that her suffering would have been more bearable had she been attended by a woman physician and suggested that Elizabeth had the intelligence and courage to pursue a medical degree. The idea took hold, though the obstacles to its achievement were formidable. Elizabeth lacked money to support her studies and her preparation in science and classical languages were inadequate for admission to a well-established medical school. She also needed to obtain some prior medical experience, which many schools required. To earn money, Elizabeth turned again to teaching and arranged to live in a physician’s household, where she received some medical training, the use of a medical library, and the opportunity to study Greek and Latin. However, the most formidable obstacle remained: admission to a medical school.
“Elizabeth, it is of no use trying. Thee cannot gain admission to these schools. Thee must go to Paris and don masculine attire to gain the necessary knowledge.”
—Dr. Joseph Warrington
Physicians in Philadelphia and New York, whose advice Elizabeth sought, were uniformly discouraging. A woman had never been admitted to medical school, the time was not right, she could only succeed disguised as a man. Even liberal-minded physicians, like the Quaker Joseph Warrington, felt that her plan could not be fulfilled. After failing to gain admission to any of the established medical schools, she applied to a dozen smaller colleges. She received a single acceptance, from Geneva Medical College in Geneva, N.Y.
Geneva Medical College was one of the many small, short-lived medical schools that flourished in 19th-century America. Founded in 1835 in a small town at the foot of Seneca Lake in western New York State, by 1847 it had seven faculty members, a student body of about 150, and a new college building. To graduate, students took two 16-week courses of lectures, submitted a thesis, and took an oral exam. Nearly all the students came from the surrounding counties.
Elizabeth arrived in Geneva on November 6, 1847, several weeks after the term had begun. Though she described her reception as friendly, there was probably an undertone of surprise and consternation among students and faculty. A member of the class, writing years later, revealed that the faculty opposed her admission but felt unable to turn down an otherwise qualified woman candidate. They referred the decision to the students, who took the request as a joke, voted unanimously to admit her, drafted a declaration to that effect, and thought no more about it. A few weeks later the “lady student” appeared in the lecture room.
At first, Elizabeth experienced the bewilderment of any new student, but the novelty of her gender made her position more difficult. The townspeople avoided her, thinking her either mad or immoral. Curious strangers entered the lecture room to stare at her.
“I had not the slightest idea of the commotion created by my appearance as a medical student in the little town. Very slowly I perceived that a doctor’s wife at the table avoided any communication with me, and that as I walked backwards and forwards to college the ladies stopped to stare at me, as at a curious animal. I afterwards found that I had so shocked Geneva propriety that 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.”
—Elizabeth Blackwell’s Diary, November 22, 1847
Her attendance at anatomy lectures produced embarrassment and the professor, Professor John Webster, her most enthusiastic supporter, suggested that she stay away on the days reproductive anatomy was demonstrated. She replied that she wished to be treated simply as another student, that she regarded the study of anatomy with profound reverence, and was certain that an experienced medical man could not feel embarrassment from her presence. Dr. Webster’s manuscript syllabus reveals the embarrassing subject of dissection.
“November 22.—A trying day, and I feel almost worn out, though it was encouraging too, and in some measure a triumph; but ’tis a terrible ordeal! That dissection was just as much as I could bear. Some of the students blushed, some were hysterical, not one could keep in a smile … My delicacy was certainly shocked, and yet the exhibition was in some sense ludicrous. I had to pinch my hand till the blood nearly came … Dr. Webster, who had perhaps the most trying position, behaved admirably.”
—Elizabeth Blackwell’s Diary, November 22, 1847
Her seriousness of purpose, superior intelligence, tact, and perfect decorum eventually won the respect and acceptance of faculty, students, and townspeople. Elizabeth’s carefully written notes for Professor Lee’s class in materia medica give evidence of her attentiveness and diligence as a student.
Elizabeth spent the spring and summer between her two class sessions at Blockley Almshouse in Philadelphia. Though the governing body gave her permission to observe the patients and medical staff, her presence was not well received; the young resident physicians refused to have anything to do with her.
Blockley received the poorest of Philadelphia’s sick and insane and the many Irish immigrants brought there suffering from “ship fever” (typhus) provided the subject of her thesis. The thesis was very well received and given the honor of publication in the Buffalo Medical Journal.
Continue to Part II of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell’s story…
This post is adapted from an exhibit curated by Carol Clausen, Conservation Librarian, held at the National Library of Medicine from January 23 to September 4, 1999.