Although born in Britain, Elizabeth Blackwell has the distinction of being the first woman to receive a medical degree in the US. Making pioneering strides for women in medicine, she went on to become a social and moral reformer in the US and her native UK. Following in her footsteps, her sister Emily was the third woman in the US to earn a medical degree.
One of nine children, Elizabeth and Emily had a happy, but financially troubled childhood. In an effort to bolster their financial standing, the family started its own school, The Cincinnati English and French Academy for Young Ladies. Elizabeth then went on to accept a position teaching music in North Carolina to save for her medical school tuition and expenses.
Elizabeth Blackwell’s greatest ambition was to attend medical school. Of her aspirations, she said, “My mind is fully made up. I have not the slightest hesitation on the subject; the thorough study of medicine, I am quite resolved to go through with. The horrors and disgusts I have no doubt of vanquishing. I have overcome stronger distastes than any that now remain, and feel fully equal to the contest. As to the opinion of people, I don’t care one straw personally; though I take so much pains, as a matter of policy, to propitiate it, and shall always strive to do so; for I see continually how the highest good is eclipsed by the violent or disagreeable forms which contain it.”
She started her medical training by studying anatomy privately with respected physician, Dr. Jonathan M. Allen, but continued to meet resistance at her attempts to receive formal medical training. Many American doctors advised her to pursue medical school acceptance in Paris. Some shockingly urged her to disguise herself as a male in order to study medicine. Finally, she was admitted to Hobart College as a medical student. Her acceptance was historic as well. Rather than follow the conventional route of dean and faculty evaluation and appointment, her admittance was voted upon by the 150-student all male class. She was unanimously accepted.
She met several hardships along the way to her medical degree, but continued to persevere. Between semesters, Blackwell received much needed clinical experience by working in local clinics. She struggled to find acceptance among her peers with many residents refusing to collaborate with her in properly diagnosing and treating patients. Blackwell lost the sight in her left eye when she accidentally squirted a medical solution into her eye while treating an infant patient. After recovering from this injury, which ended her dream of becoming a surgeon, she continued her medical studies in London. She eventually returned to New York City, where she believed the prejudices against women in medicine were less strident than those in London. She went on to graduate from New York’s Geneva Medical College in 1849, finally realizing her dream of becoming a doctor.
Blackwell and her sister provided invaluable medical aid during the Civil War for abolitionists and fallen soldiers. Following her medical career, she wrote and published her autobiography, Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women. Although advanced age and a decline in health caused Blackwell to retire from practicing medicine in the late 1870s, she never let up on the pursuit of medical school reforms for women.