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165: The Self-Empowered Woman: Elizabeth Blackwell
Today, most of us take going to a female physician for granted, but the photo above will serve as an introduction to Elizabeth Blackwell, who was the first (English born) woman in America to receive a medical degree. Born in Bristol, England in 1821, she was the third of nine children and grew up in an unusual family. Her father (a sugar refiner) was what was then called a "dissenter," because he refused to accept the authority of the Church of England. Because of his strongly Quaker(3: Belief In The Unbelievable) politics, his children were not accepted at public school and had to be tutored at home. Against English tradition, he gave his daughters the same education that his sons received, and his wife tutored the children in music and literature (9: Music).
When Elizabeth was eleven years old, a fire destroyed her father's business and the family moved to New York. But when the economy faltered in 1837, he lost most of his wealth so they moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. As Quakers, they valued that Ohio was against slavery, and they hoped to rebuild their business. Unfortunately, within only a few months he died of biliary fever, which left the family in a precarious financial position (1: No Paternal Safety Net).
During these difficult years, Elizabeth and her sisters supported the family by operating a boarding school for young women. When she was 21 years old, she accepted a teaching position in Kentucky, in order to earn money for medical school--but she only stayed one year because the racial attitudes there offended her strong Abolitionist (and Quaker) beliefs.
When she returned to Ohio, a friend who had undergone treatment for a serious gynecological disorder told Elizabeth that she wished she could of had a female doctor treat her because it would have spared her enduring "an embarrassing ordeal." Even though, at first, Elizabeth rejected the idea of studying medicine, it soon became her only goal. Even though there were no female doctors (friends suggested that she travel to France and disguise herself as a man to get into medical school), the study and practice of medicine soon became the most important thing in her life (7:Magnificent Obsession).
Three years later she moved to Asheville, North Carolina, where she taught school. She lived (and studied medicine in her spare time) at the home of Doctor John Dickson, where she had access to his medical library. The next year she moved to Charleston, South Carolina, to teach at a girls school and continue her medical studies with Dickson's brother, Samuel (4:Supportive Someone).
Determined to become a doctor, she applied to 29 different schools, but was rejected by all of them. Finally, in 1847, she was admitted to the Geneva New York Medical College, but learned later that she had been admitted as a "practical joke" because no other woman had ever even tried to gain admittance to a medical school (11: Risk Addiction).
At first, denied permission to attend classroom demonstrations, and most of the people who heard about her goal considered her to be either immoral or crazy (5: Life Is Not A Popularity Contest). Fortunately, her quiet personality and strong work ethic turned her classmates and teachers into fans. When (in 1849) she graduated at the head of her class as the first woman in the United States to ever earn a medical degree, it made news on both sides of the Atlantic (13: More Than Meets The Eye).
Unable to find a job or work at a hospital, she moved to Paris, France and continued her training at La Maternite Hospital. While working with young children there who had conjunctivitis, she contacted the eye disease purulent ophthalmia. As a result, she was left blind in one eye, was forced to have it removed, and replaced with a glass eye. This put an end to her hopes of being a surgeon (12: Hard Times).
She returned to New York City, but again was rejected whenever she applied for work as a doctor. So in 1857, she and her sister, Emily, opened a private practice in a rented room; their dispensary, which was originally called The New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, later became The New York Infirmary and College for Women. Located near Tompkins Square, it was unique for being a practice "operated by and for women."
In 1856, she adopted Katherine "Kitty" Barry, an orphan, who became her devoted companion for the rest of her life (16: Intensive Motherhood). There is no record that Blackwell ever fell in love or married (15: Forget About Prince Charming).
As a Quaker, Blackwell (and her entire family) was active in the anti-slavery movement. One of her brothers married suffragette Lucy Stone, and another married Antoinette Brown, who was also important to the struggles of women's rights movement at that time. When the Civil War broke out, Doctor Blackwell organized a unit of female nurses/field doctors to help the Union Army. By 1868, she was able to establish a Women's Medical College at the infirmary.
In 1869, she left her sister in charge of the college and returned to England. With Florence Nightingale she opened the Women's Medical College and also taught at the London School of Medicine for Women. In addition she also opened the first training school for nurses in the U.S. in 1873, published a number of books about hygiene, diseases, and women's issues, and became the first female physician in the U.K. Medical Register (13: More Than Meets the Eye).
In 1907, she was injured in a fall and never fully recovered. After a stroke, she died at her home in Hastings, England, in 1910.