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Elizabeth Blackwell’s Struggle to Become a Doctor

[The stamp issued in 1974 by the United States Postal Service in honor of Elizabeth Blackwell. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library]
It wasn’t an interest in science or anatomy that motivated Elizabeth Blackwell (1821–1910) to become the first woman in America to earn a medical degree; it was a dying friend’s plaint that she would have fared better if she’d had a “lady doctor.”

“I hated everything connected with the body, and could not bear the sight of a medical book,” Elizabeth Blackwell (1821–1910) wrote in her book about the medical profession, published in 1895. It wasn’t an interest in science or anatomy that motivated her to become the first woman in America to earn a medical degree; it was a dying friend’s plaint that she would have fared better if she’d had a “lady doctor.”

Another reason Blackwell sought an “absorbing occupation,” as she put it, was to avoid the pitfalls of love. Around the time of her friend’s death, Blackwell wrote in her diary after suffering in love, “I felt more determined than ever to become a physician, and thus place a strong barrier between me and all ordinary marriage. I must have something to engross my thoughts, some object in life which will fill this vacuum and prevent this sad wearing away of the heart.”

Blackwell’s family encouraged her plan, and two of her brothers drove her to North Carolina from her home in Cincinnati so that she could teach school and begin preparing for medical education.

The third daughter in a family of five girls and four boys, Elizabeth was born in England and moved to America with her family at age 11. Her father, Samuel Blackwell, initially owned a sugar refinery in New York City, but moved the family to Cincinnati after it burned down and the rebuilt business failed.

Samuel Blackwell was a social reformer who saw to it that his daughters as well as his sons were well educated and developed their talents. Several of the Blackwell children would go on to great achievements. Elizabeth’s older sister Anna was a poet, translator, and journalist who wrote for many newspapers in the United States and other countries, and her younger sister Emily also studied medicine, earning her degree a few years after Elizabeth. Henry Blackwell, one of Elizabeth’s younger brothers, became an editor, journalist, and businessman and the husband of Lucy Stone, a prominent abolitionist and suffragist.

After a year teaching and studying in North Carolina, Elizabeth Blackwell moved to Philadelphia, then considered the seat of medical learning in America, and applied for admission to the four medical colleges there. She was turned down by all, although a professor at the largest school told her she could enter if she disguised herself as a man. Another professor advised her to go to Paris for medical training. “But neither the advice to go to Paris nor the suggestion of disguise tempted me for a moment,” Elizabeth wrote. “It was to my mind a moral crusade on which I had entered, a course of justice and common sense, and it must be pursued in the light of day, and with public sanction, in order to accomplish its end.”

Blackwell broadened her search to include the smaller schools of the northern states—“country schools,” as they were called. Among them was Geneva Medical College, in upstate New York, which accepted her, by vote not of the faculty but of the students. In October 1847, the entire medical class at Geneva adopted a resolution stating in part that “to every branch of scientific education the door should be open equally to all; that the application of Elizabeth Blackwell to become a member of our class meets our entire approbation; and in extending our unanimous invitation we pledge ourselves that no conduct of ours shall cause her to regret her attendance at this institution.”

At last she was in. Blackwell accepted Geneva’s invitation immediately and left Philadelphia on a train in early November, headed for upstate New York.

During her two years at Geneva, the male students accepted her and treated her well. But Blackwell slowly realized that many women in the small town considered her odd, so she kept to herself. “I never walked abroad,” she wrote, “but hastening daily to my college as to a sure refuge, I knew when I shut the great doors behind me that I shut out all unkindly criticism, and I soon felt perfectly at home amongst my fellow-students.”

When she received her medical degree, in 1849, the news traveled far. The editor of The National Era, a weekly newspaper in Washington, DC, wrote a long article about her. “She is one of those who cannot be hedged up, or turned aside, or defeated,” he concluded. “She is a woman, not of words, but of deeds; and all those who only want to talk about it, may as well give up.”

In the years that followed, Blackwell founded a hospital for indigent women and children and a medical college for women. She returned to England, where she died in 1910. In 1974, the US Postal Service issued a stamp honoring her as the first woman physician.

New Grant to Digitize Blackwell Collections

In late January 2013, the Schlesinger Library announced the launch of a new digitization project supported by a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. The $150,000 grant funds a two-year project to digitize five Blackwell Family Collections, which span 1784 to 1981 and detail the activities of members of the Blackwell family who were leaders in abolition, prohibition, health care, women’s suffrage, and education.

The Schlesinger Library will invest an additional $150,000 to meet the cost of the project, titled “Those Extraordinary Blackwells: Leaders of Social Reform in 19th- and 20th-Century America.”

Blackwell family members include Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in America to receive a medical degree; her sister Emily, also a physician; their brother Henry, a noted abolitionist and women’s suffrage activist; his wife, Lucy Stone, the famous women’s suffrage leader; their daughter, Alice Stone Blackwell, active in both suffrage and temperance; and Antoinette Brown Blackwell (sister-in-law to Elizabeth, Emily, and Henry), a reformer and the first woman in the United States to become an ordained minister.

The collection includes materials that record travel, professional work, and civic and reform activities of members of the close-knit family.

The project is scheduled to be completed in June 2015.

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