The first woman in America to receive a medical degree, Elizabeth Blackwell crusaded for the admission of women to medical schools in the United States and Europe.
Elizabeth Blackwell was born in England on February 3, 1821, and when she was twelve her parents emigrated with their nine children to New York City. Her father became an ardent supporter of the abolition movement (someone who wants to eliminate slavery ). In 1838, the Blackwells moved to Cincinnati, Ohio , but within a few months Blackwell's father died. The three oldest girls supported the family for several years by operating a boarding school for young women.
In 1842, Blackwell accepted a teaching position in Henderson, Kentucky . Local racial attitudes offended her strong abolitionist convictions, and she resigned at the end of the year. On her return to Cincinnati, a friend urged her to study medicine. The following year, Blackwell moved to Asheville, North Carolina , and later to Charleston, South Carolina , where she taught school and studied medicine in her spare time.
When her attempts to enroll in the medical schools of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania , and New York City were rejected, she wrote to a number of small northern colleges. In 1847, she was admitted to the Geneva Medical College in New York . Because women had never gone to medical school, all eyes were upon her, and Blackwell proved to be an outstanding student. In 1849, at the top of her class, she became the first woman to graduate from medical school; the event was highly publicized in the United States and Europe. Because no hospitals in the United States would hire her, she went to Paris, France, to work at a women's and children's hospital for further study and practical experience. While working with the children, she contracted a severe eye infection that left her blind in one eye.
Practice in the United States
Handicapped by partial blindness, Blackwell gave up her ambition to become a surgeon and began practice at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London. In 1851, she returned to New York, where she applied for several positions as a physician but was rejected because of her sex. She established a private practice in a rented room, where her sister Emily, who had also pursued a medical career, soon joined her. Their modest practice later became the New York Infirmary and College for Women, operated by and for women. The Women's Medical College opened in Page 178 | Top of ArticleNovember 1868, adjacent to the New York Infirmary, with Blackwell as professor of hygiene. It was the first school devoted entirely to the medical education of women.
During the Civil War (1861–65), she organized a unit of women nurses for field service. The army at this time had no hospital units. This association soon became the U.S. Sanitary Aid Commission, officially appointed by President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65).
In 1869, Blackwell set up practice in London and continued her efforts to open the medical profession to women. Her articles and her autobiography attracted widespread attention. From 1875 to 1907, she was a professor at the London School of Medicine for Women. She died at her home in Hastings in 1910.