Birthplace: Bristol, England
Location of death: Hastings, Sussex, England
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, St. Mun's Churchyard, Kilmun, Scotland
Race or Ethnicity: White
Nationality: United States
Executive summary: America's first woman doctor
Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to become a medical doctor in America. She was born in England in a time when women's career opportunities were almost entirely limited to housewife, nurse, or schoolmarm, but her parents had the radical notion that their daughters should receive the same education as their sons. In her teens she came with her family to America, where her father died soon after settling in Cincinnati. To make ends meet, Blackwell's mother opened a school where Elizabeth and her sisters taught, and she saved as much as she could toward her dream of attending medical school.
When she could afford tuition, she was rejected at twenty-nine medical schools before being accepted at Geneva College (now Hobart College), but even there it was rumored that her admission had been meant as a something of a joke. Shunned by many of her classmates and often belittled by her teachers or asked not to attend lectures on medical topics deemed 'embarrassing', she completed her studies and received her degree in a ceremony on 23 January 1849. The graduation was held in a church, packed with local women who wanted to see history. Hers was the last name called, after all the male graduates had received their degrees, and when the school's President said a few words in Latin and handed her the degree, she replied, "Sir, I thank you. By the help of the Most High, it shall be the effort of my life to shed honor upon your diploma." The ladies in the audience, along with many of the men, applauded, and Blackwell did fulfill her promise.
Shortly after graduation she became a naturalized US citizen, then traveled to Europe to study further at the Maternity Hospital in Paris, where she suffered an infection and lost her sight in one eye. She then worked at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London, where she and Florence Nightingale became friends. Returning to America in 1851, Blackwell opened a private practice in New York, but with men controlling the budgets in most families, she had few patients, and earned most of her income lecturing on hygiene.
In 1857 she established the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, a facility to serve the poor and, not coincidentally, to provide employment for herself. The hospital immediately hired the second woman to earn an MD in America, Marie Zakrzewska, and the third, Blackwell's younger sister Emily Blackwell. The hospital, now known as New York Downtown Hospital, remains open to this day.
During the Civil War, Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell founded the Woman's Central Association of Relief. Soon, under orders from President Abraham Lincoln, this project became the cornerstone of the United States Sanitary Commission, the federal agency that oversaw nurse training, coordinated volunteer efforts, and provided battlefront hospital and kitchen services. In 1868 the Blackwell sisters opened the Woman's Medical College of the New York Infirmary, and the following year Elizabeth Blackwell returned to England, where she lived the remainder of her life, and co-founded the London School of Medicine for Women.
Her brother, Henry Blackwell, married pioneering suffragette Lucy Stone, and another of her brothers, Sam Blackwell Jr., married Antoinette Louisa Brown, a suffragette, anti-slavery activist, and the first female minister in the Congregational faith (though her ordination was not recognized by the church). Blackwell herself never married, but in another radical departure from the norms of her time, despite being single she adopted a daughter.
Father: Samuel Blackwell (sugar executive, b. 1790, d. 1838)
Mother: Hannah Lane Blackwell (school owner)
Sister: Anna Blackwell (b. 1816, d. 1900)
Sister: Marian Blackwell (b. 1818, d. 1897)
Brother: Samuel Blackwell Jr (b. 1823, d. 1901)
Brother: Henry Browne Blackwell (b. 1825, d. 1909)
Sister: Emily Blackwell (physician, b. 1826, d. 1910)
Sister: Sarah Ellen Blackwell (b. 1828, d. 1901)
Brother: George Washington Blackwell (b. 1832, d. 1912)
Daughter: Katharine Barry Blackwell (publisher, b. 1849, adopted 1854, d. 1938)
Medical School: MD, Hobart College (1849)
Professor: Gynecology, London School of Medicine for Women (1873-1910)
Naturalized US Citizen 1849
National Women's Hall of Fame
Author of books:
The Laws of Life, with Special Reference to the Physical Education of Girls (1852)
The Moral Education of the Young (1879)
Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women (1895, memoirs)
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