Today we’re looking back at the life of the first woman to gain a medical degree in the US with our women’s history throwback. This August marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment and so we’re throwing it way back this month and talking about Historical women who were kicking butts and giving us our freedoms as women. This week we’re looking at Elizabeth Blackwell, born in England, but the first woman to become a doctor in America.
She emigrated with her family to America when she was 11 years old with her parents and their nine other children. Unfortunately, shortly after moving, her father, Samuel died in 1838 leaving the family with severe financial woes. Elizabeth and her sisters decided to set up a school to help pay their family’s expenses, and education featured strongly in Elizabeth’s life.
A family friend who suffered from a terminal disease confided in Elizabeth that she would have fared better if she’d had a female doctor. Elizabeth took this to heart and vowed to become a physician. At the time, no medical schools accepted women, but there were apprenticed women (though rare) who became unlicensed physicians. While Elizabeth was teaching, she became friends with two Quaker doctors who she hoped could help her with applications to medical school. She was initially rejected everywhere, except Geneva College in New York, that sent her an acceptance letter that the student body called was an administrative practical joke.
As the first woman at a medical school in the United States she faced all kinds of prejudices from her professors, peers, and even her patients. She graduated first in her class writing her doctoral thesis on typhus fever in 1849 and became the first woman to become an MD.
She then traveled to London and Paris where she worked delivering babies until she caught a disease that left her blind in one eye and thus was forced to give up on surgeries. She then returned to New York and started a private practice that struggled because people didn’t trust her as a female doctor.
Then in the 1850’s she started a clinic called the New York Dispensary for Poor Women and Children working to get medicine to those in need. She was also known for lecturing on the importance of education and in particular, educating women.
She then established the U.S. Sanitary Commission in 1861 as she’d noticed that clean sanitary conditions were an important part of health, especially with the Civil War happening around her, and helped train nurses on how to best clean wounds during this time and how they should work in Union hospitals.
In 1868 she opened a medical college in New York City and later became a professor of gynecology at the new London School of Medicine for Women in 1875. Elizabeth wrote and published a number of books during her tenure as a professor about reform, hygiene, preventative medicine, sanitation, family planning and she even talked about suffrage.
She died continuously working for the betterment of women back in England on May 31st, 1910.