Everyone was surprised back in 1847 when Elizabeth Blackwell arrived at Geneva Medical College on the first day of classes, ready to learn.
Blackwell is best-known for being the first woman to earn a medical degree in the US. The pioneer applied to every medical school in New York, plus 12 medical schools in nearby states in 1857. Being that Geneva was at the time an all-male college, the dean decided to put Blackwell’s admittance in the hands of the student body in the form of a vote. For Blackwell to be accepted to the College, all 150 male students had to approve it. They all voted in favor of her acceptance as a joke. Two years later, Blackwell was graduating at the top of her class.
Blackwell had not always had her heart set on learning and practicing medicine. For a while, she was a teacher. “I hated everything connected with the body, and could not bear the sight of a medical book […] My favorite studies were history and metaphysics, and the very thought of dwelling on the physical structure of the body and its various ailments filled me with disgust,” wrote Blackwell in her book, titled Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women. Her inspiration to pursue a new profession in medicine came from a friend who was suffering from a terminal illness. The friend told Blackwell that she would have suffered less had her doctor been a woman.
After graduating from medical school, Blackwell traveled to Paris and London. She chose the Parisian maternity hospital, La Maternité, for her post-graduate studies in midwifery. Though her teachers praised her talents, she compromised her left eye while treating an infant’s bacterial infection. Blackwell would lose sight in that eye, thus ending her dreams of becoming a surgeon.
Adding insult to injury, Blackwell went on to study at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, where she was forbidden from studying gynecology and pediatrics.
In 1850, Blackwell moved back to the U.S. After establishing a practice of her own, she found herself struggling to acquire
patients. A few years later, she opted to open a dispensary with her friends for the poor in New York. They operated out of a single rented room and only treated patients three days a week. By the next year, however, the dispensary was moved to a larger property.
Her sister Emily Blackwell, who was the third woman in the U.S. to earn a medical degree, joined Elizabeth as she expanded her dispensary into the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. In addition to providing medical care to the poor, the infirmary offered female doctors a place to gain experience in practicing medicine.
In the late 1870s,Blackwell left her practice behind and returned to education. This time, she was helping establish a women’s medical school in London, called the London School of Medicine for Women. There she taught gynecology until 190
7, when injuries from an accident left her unable to continue. By that tim
e, she had authored several books offering advice about sexual health and insights into medical sociology.
Clearly, Blackwell didn’t stop dreaming once she went down in history as the first woman to earn a medical degree in the U.S. She opened her ownpractice, aided the less fortunate, offered new opportunities to women hoping to
practice medicine, and educated the public through her books. Needless to say, the field (and the world) could benefit from more doctors like Blackwell.
Featured Image by Scott Moore on Flickr
Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
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