Equality, Diversity & Inclusion

Dr Elizabeth Blackwell: America’s First Woman in Medicine

Painted Portrait of Elizabeth Blackwel sat looking at the painter holding a book
Megan Cuerden

Choosing just one inspirational woman in the field of science for this article was the hardest part of it all. There are countless women who deserve to be celebrated, some who have already been covered by Impact and I’m sure there are many more articles yet to come. Whilst the amount of choice made this decision difficult, being a medical student myself made this a slightly easier decision. Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell undoubtedly played a role in me, as a woman, being able to study medicine today, and so this article is dedicated to her.

Whilst Elizabeth Blackwell was born in Bristol, she was actually the first woman to receive an M.D. degree (degree in medicine) in America, in 1849. After applying to all the medical schools in New York, Philadelphia and a further 12 across the North-Eastern states, she received rejections from all but one. Geneva Medical College of New York put the decision to the all-male student body, who voted yes as a joke, yet were less than pleased when she began her studies there in 1847.

Black and white photograph of Elizabeth Blackwell

Once Elizabethe had completed her studies in 1849, despite the many aggravations of her male colleagues, she worked in both London and Paris, studying midwifery at La Maternité. It was whilst working at La Maternité that Elizabeth ontracted purulent ophthalmia causing her to lose sight in one eye and thus having to give up her dream of becoming a surgeon. Despite this setback, she returned to New York where she set up her own dispensary in a single rented room. By 1854 she was able to move her practice into a house, and in 1856 she was joined by her sister Dr Emily Blackwell.

In 1857 Elizabeth and Emily were joined by Dr Marie Zakrzewska, and together they opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. In 1867, this same institution opened its own medical college for women.

At the same time as setting up her own infirmary and medical college, Elizabeth had also been filling her time travelling back and forth to England with the intention of setting up another infirmary there. It was during one of these many visits in 1859 that Elizabeth was entered onto the British General Medical Council’s medical register; being the first woman to do so.

Prevention is better than cure

In 1870 she successfully set up her own private clinic in London and shortly after, in 1871, founded the National Health Society whose aim was to educate people about hygiene and healthy living, and also where the statement ‘Prevention is better than cure’ originates. In 1874, together with two British physicians, Dr Sophia Jex-Blake and Dr Elizabeth Garret-Anderson, they set up the London School of Medicine for Women.

Elizabeth published two books, Medicine as a Profession for Women (1860), and Address on the Medical Education of Women (1864), before being appointed Professor of Gynaecology in 1865. Twenty years on, she published Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women. Elizabeth went on to publish many more books and pamphlets as part of her involvement in many reform acts surrounding issues such as hygiene, medical education, preventative medicine, and women’s suffrage.

Despite having no initial desire for medicine, or for learning about the human body, Elizabeth said she was moved into learning medicine after a terminally ill friend told her she would have been spared her suffering if her physician was a woman. This inspired her to fight for a career and future that no one thought she ought to have. Her continual push for knowledge and respect despite the numerous rejections, outcries, and setbacks resulted in success much bigger than anyone could have predicted.

She will always be remembered as a pioneer in women’s health and education

Setting up two infirmaries, two medical schools for women as well as an international level of education and support for women’s health started the beginning of a cultural shift enabling women to be given the right to practice as doctors. Elizabeth dedicated her entire life to medicine and medical education, the knowledge and education she provided is unquantifiable, and she will always be remembered as a pioneer in women’s health and education.

Whilst this article is dedicated to the life of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, numerous other important women are mentioned in this article, all of whom are worth learning about to appreciate their astounding contributions to medicine.

Megan Cuerden

Featured image by Joseph Stanley Kozlowski (1903) from Upstate Medical University, New York, Library via Wikimedia. Image in the public domain. The image was cropped.

In article image from the National Library of Medicine via Wikimedia. Image in the public domain. No changes were made to the image.

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Equality, Diversity & InclusionHumans and HealthLifestyleScience

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