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.
The academic career that had begun with such difficulty was completed in triumph. Elizabeth Blackwell had gained the support of the students, faculty, and townspeople, and graduated first in her class. Her brother Henry, who attended the graduation ceremony held in the Presbyterian church in Geneva, described it in a letter to his family:
The important crisis is past—the great occasion over—the object of so much & so justifiable anticipation has been attained…About half past 10 o’clock E. & I walked up to the church…it was arranged that Eliz. & I should sit down at the entrance of the left aisle and join the procession as it came up…We found the church—galleries and all, crowded with ladies, they only having been as yet admitted & of course when we came in there was a general stir & murmur & everybody turned to look at us. By the time the procession came up, all the pews except those reserved for them were filled…
After a short discourse by Dr. Hale the President—the diplomas were conferred—4 being called at a time—and ascending the steps to the platform the President addressed them in a latin formula—taking off his hat, but remaining seated—& so handed them their diplomas, which they received with a bow & retired. Eliz. was left to the last & called up alone—the President taking off his hat, rose & addressing her in the same formula—substituting Domina for Domine, presented her the diploma—whereupon our Sis. who had walked up & stood before him with much dignity bowed & half turned to retire but suddenly turning back replied Sir I thank you, by the help of the Most High, it shall be the effort of my life to shed honour upon your diploma—whereupon she bowed & the President bowed—the audience gave manifestations of applause—little Dr. Webster rubbed his hands—the learned curators & faculty nodded grave approbation at each other upon the platform & our Sis. descending the steps took her seat with her fellow-physicians in front….
Yours ever, HBB
Transcript from a Letter by Henry Browne Blackwell
Courtesy Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Blackwell Family Papers
In his graduation address to the 1849 medical class, Charles Lee, Dean of Geneva Medical College, referred to the extraordinary event of the day and declared his wholehearted admiration for the first female M.D. However, when he had the graduation address printed he added a footnote stating that, though he supported medical education for qualified women, the “inconveniences attending the admission of females to all the lectures in a medical school, are so great, that he will feel compelled on all future occasions to oppose such a practice…”
“This event will stand forth hereafter as a memorable example of what women can undertake and accomplish, too.”
—Charles A. Lee
The press, nationally and internationally, took notice of the first bestowal of a medical degree on a woman. Most reactions were neutral or positive, if mildly condescending, but a letter in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal of February 21, 1849, roundly condemned “the farce, enacted at the Geneva Medical College.” The writer concluded “as this is the first case of the kind that has been perpetrated either in Europe or America, I hope, for the honor of humanity, that it will be the last” and called upon the medical profession “to teach other similar institutions the impropriety of following the example.” For the most part, most medical institutions heeded his appeal.
Soon after graduation, Elizabeth left for England and Paris, hoping to supplement her Geneva education with study at the great hospitals of Europe. Though told that she would be welcomed at the teaching hospitals of Paris, the only opportunity she was offered was at the lying-in hospital, La Maternité. There she found that her medical training gave her no status above that of the uneducated French village girls who were training to become midwives. Nevertheless, she considered the training in women’s and children’s diseases, as well as midwifery, to be excellent. She next studied for several months study at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, where she was welcomed by the faculty—except the Professor of Midwifery, who told her that “his neglecting to give me aid, was owning to no disrespect to me as a lady, but to his condemnation of my object!”
“…a blank wall of social and professional antagonism.”
Elizabeth returned to the United States in 1851 and settled in New York City, where she hoped to establish a practice. However, patients were slow in coming and she described “a blank wall of social and professional antagonism.” Her career instead took the direction it was to have for the rest of her life: the promotion of hygiene and preventive medicine among both lay persons and professionals and the promotion of medical education and opportunities for women physicians.
Soon after her return to the U.S., Elizabeth opened a free dispensary to provide out-patient treatment to poor women and children, but it was open only a few hours a week and its services were limited. In 1857, she closed the dispensary and opened the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, a full-scale hospital with beds for medical and surgical patients. It’s purpose was not only to serve the poor, but also to provide positions for women physicians and a training facility for female medical and nursing students. The medical staff at first consisted of Elizabeth and two of her protégés, her sister Emily and Marie Zakrzewska. This institution still exists as the New York University Downtown Hospital.
Elizabeth believed that women should receive their medical education alongside men in the established medical schools. She was not sympathetic to the women’s medical schools that had opened in Boston, Philadelphia and New York in the 1850s. However, since the women trained in her Infirmary were not able to gain admission to the male medical colleges, she was persuaded to establish her own women’s medical college.
The Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary opened its doors in 1868, with fifteen students and a faculty of nine, including Elizabeth, as Professor of Hygiene, and her younger sister Emily as Professor of Obstetrics and Diseases of Women. The year after the College’s opening, Elizabeth left for England, leaving the College under Emily’s directorship.
She had always planned to return to England to make her career, and in 1869 she left New York to spend the remaining 40 years of her life in Great Britain.
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.