Who To Expect When Expecting Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell

“I do not wish to give [women] a first place, still less a second one–but the most complete freedom, to take their true place whatever it may be.” – Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell [1]


Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell was born in Bristol, England in February 1821 to Samuel Blackwell, a sugar refiner, and Hanna Lane, from a wealthy merchant family [2]. As a result of financial hardship and a yearning by her father to help abolitionists, Elizabeth and her family moved to America in 1832 [3]. They lived in New York, New Jersey, and finally Ohio, where her father died in 1838. Elizabeth’s journey would take her from different parts of America and Europe.

Elizabeth was initially turned off from medicine because, as she put it, she “hated everything connected with the body, and could not bear the sight of a medical book… My favourite 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” [3]. Despite her initial repulsion to medicine, she was eventually convinced to pursue it. According to Elizabeth, a female friend had convinced her to go into medicine because that friend was dying and told Elizabeth that her illness would have been more bearable if dealt with by a woman rather than a man [2]. This was because the friend felt that women were more compassionate and understood the ailment of women better than men.

Wanting to get into medical school was one thing, but actually doing it proved to be a very difficult task fraught with sexism and economic issues. Even in the 1800s, medical school was expensive for anyone to pursue. To get the money, Elizabeth worked as a teacher in the pro-slave south, particularly North and South Carolina from 1845 to 1847. Being pro-abolitionist, like her family, Elizabeth taught slave children in Sunday schools, the only legal means of teaching them at that time [2]. During her time in the Carolinas, Elizabeth met Reverend John Dickson, a former physician, and Samuel Dickson, a professor of medicine. The brothers encouraged Elizabeth to continue her medical pursuit by lending her their medical books and tutoring her with their knowledge in medicine [2]. 

In 1847, she began the process of applying to medical schools, which did not go so well. She applied to all medical schools in Philadelphia and New York to no avail [3]. She continued applying to schools in the northeastern states and finally, after 12 more applications, she was accepted into Geneva Medical College [3]. Her acceptance into Geneva Medical College was the result of a practical joke. The faculty at the college treated her application as a joke to the point that they told the students (all male) that a woman was applying and the only way they would accept her is if all the students have no objections to the application [4]. The students, thinking that it was a joke by a rival school, unanimously accepted Elizabeth’s application [2].

To the horror of everyone at Geneva Medical College, Elizabeth matriculated and began to make her way towards becoming the first female to receive a medical degree in America. Her time in college was filled with many obstacles and discrimination [5]. Some lecturers tried to exclude her from classes dealing with reproduction because they felt that it was unrefined to upset the delicate sensibility of a woman [6]. Nevertheless, Elizabeth persisted through the discrimination and won the support of her fellow students and faculty at the college. She was admitted to all the classes and her work ethics and determination broke through the discrimination she faced at the college. In 1849, Elizabeth graduated first in her class and became the first woman to get a medical degree in America. She persisted through everything and proved that a woman was just as capable as a man and should never be denied any right because of her gender. She continued to persist and achieved many wonderful things in her life.

Here are some notable achievements Dr. Blackwell had during her lifetime:

  • In 1851, she returned to New York and established a medical practice with her sister, Emily Blackwell, who was the third woman to earn a degree in medicine [7].
  • In 1853, Dr. Blackwell started The New York Dispensary for Poor Woman and Children and went on to break more barriers for women [2].
  • In 1857, she opened The New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, which became the centre of nurse training and was placed in the hands of her sister, Emily [2].
  • In 1858, she went to the UK as a lecturer. During that same time, she also became the first women to be on the British Medical Register, allowing her to practice in the UK [2].
  • In 1861, with the onset of the Civil War in America, she returned to New York to train nurses for the Union [2].
  • In 1868, she opened a medical college for women in the New York Infirmary that stayed open until Cornell University started to accept women students in 1899 [2].
  • In 1875, she became the professor of Gynecology at the London School of Medicine for Women, which she helped established [6].

Dr. Blackwell suffered a stroke in 1910 and died [6]. This is but a short overview of her life and there are many wonderful things not included here. I encourage you to check out the links provided in the article to explore more details about Dr. Blackwell and learn what an amazing person she was.

Image acquired from FamousScientists.org [2]

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