August 27, 2010

The Friday Record - Elizabeth Blackwell

First Female Doctor in America

I’m back to referring to LADIES FIRST: History’s Greatest Female Trailblazers, Winners and Mavericks by Lynn Santa Lucia. This is a great selection of biographies on fantastic women who broke the rules and over came prejudices to conquer their chosen field. Ms. Lucia writes about America’s first female doctor, Elizabeth Blackwell on page 131.

As a young girl, Elizabeth Blackwell declared, “I don’t know what I’m going to be when I grow up, but it’s going to be hard.” What an understatement!

Elizabeth was born in 1821 in Bristol, England, the third child of nine surviving children. Her father was a successful businessman who believed the education of his daughters should be equal to that of his sons.

After selling his business, the family moved to the United States in 1832.

Elizabeth’s first job, at the age of seventeen, was that of a school teacher when she and her older sisters opened a school for young ladies. After it closed, she floundered for direction in her life. It was the dying words of a dear friend who encouraged her to become a doctor. That, of course, was better said than done. Even with practical training under The Reverend John Dickson, a former doctor, sixteen schools refused her admittance.

Geneva College in upstate New York decided to ask the student body if they would accept Elizabeth as a co-ed. The all-male, high-spirited students thought it was a hoax and overwhelming voted ‘yes.’ On November 7, 1847, to the horror of the faculty, Elizabeth reported to the Dean’s office.

Though her enrollment caused a stir in both the college and the town, Elizabeth ignored it all. She interned at Blockley Almshouse in Philadelphia, training on the ward for poor women with venereal diseases. Though the staff and some patients snubbed her, she found the experience invaluable.

In 1849, Elizabeth not only graduated in half the time it took most students, she graduated first in her class. The prestigious medical degree, however, didn’t help her enter the world of practicing medicine. No other doctor would allow her to join his practice. Nor would any other medical school accept her so she could continue her studies to become a surgeon. Eventually, she accepted a position at La Maternité, a midwifery school in France. Her dream to be a surgeon was ended at there when she lost the sight in one eye after contracting an ophthalmic infection from a child suffering with gonorrhea.

In 1850, she was accepted into St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London and was on staff throughout the winter of 1850-51. She then returned to America, but continued to find the doors to private practice soundly closed to her, despite her additional training. She eventually bought her a house and set up own practice. “Patients came very slowly…I had no medical companionship; the profession stood aloof, and society was distrustful of the innovation,” she later wrote.

In 1857, Elizabeth along with her younger sister Emily (the second woman in America to become a doctor) and German immigrant Dr. Marie Zakrzewska, established the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. It was the first hospital for women staffed by women. Set in the slums, it was desperately needed and the beds were filled within a month.

The three doctors didn’t end their work there, despite the critics. In 1868, they opened Women’s Medical College. It was devoted entirely to the medical education of women. The course study was much more rigorous than any other medical college of the time and it became the first school to require four years of study. It also gave the first medical degree to an African-American woman, Rebecca Cole.

In 1869, Elizabeth returned to England, leaving the infirmary and college in Emily’s care. After garnering support for a college of medicine for women, Elizabeth joined forces with Dr. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, England’s first female physician. The two established The London School of Medicine for Women in 1875. Dr. Blackwell accepted the Chair of Hygiene (gynecology) for a year before retiring from practice in 1876.

She then moved to Hastings, England and set to write books, including an autobiography, PIONEER WORK IN OPENING THE MEDICAL PROFESSION TO WOMEN. By the time she died in 1910, more than 7,000 women were licensed to practice medicine in America.

Read more about Elizabeth Blackwell, M.D.:

Other Women in Medicine:

Florence Nightingale
Mary Edwards Walker
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson


Ginger Simpson said...

Awesome post. An author friend is writing a story of a young woman in England who has the same passion for medicine. The negativity that existed back in the earlier centuries about women exploring a traditionally male career was tremendous. Even family members discouraged her dreams, writing them off as foolish and impossible. I'm helping critique the story and I can't wait to see how it plays out. It's very interesting.

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Hi, Ginger. Yes, Elizabeth Anderson's father at first discouraged her, but then helped her go to medical school. She became England's first female doctor.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Anna Kathryn, I love stories like this. I'm researching a shirt tail relative of mine who was the first woman osteopath in North Texas and went on to establihs a hospital when she moved to the TX coast. Her daughter eventually entered the practice with her.

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Caroline, how wonderful to have family history you can incorporate into your stories!

Tanya Hanson said...

What a terrific, inspiring post. I feel like such a weenie when I learn about the strong women who came before. I recently researched and blogged about the first woman dentist Lucy Hobbs at Petticoats and Pistols. Another heroic lady.

Thanks for this, Anna.

SherryGLoag said...

Awesome and inspiring post. We owe so much to people like EB who will fight for what they believe, in this case giving women the chance to be treated by female doctors.
Thanks for sharing.