Elizabeth Blackwell was born in Bristol on 3rd February, 1821. Daughter of Samuel and Hannah Blackwell, Elizabeth had a liberal upbringing. Her family strongly supported the abolition of slavery and they encouraged enfranchising women. She is the author of ‘The Laws of Life with Special Reference to the Physical Education of Girls’, a book that talks about the mental and physical development of young girls and how young women can prepare for motherhood. She championed the cause of abolishing the Contagious Diseases Acts and wrote against it at length in her essay ‘Counsel to Parents on the Moral Education of their Children’.
1. First Woman to Attain a Medical Degree in America
Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell wanted to study medical science but she was denied admission almost everywhere she applied for. Back in the nineteenth century, women were not deemed suitable for the medical profession. In those days, women who used to work with pregnant women and assist in childbirth or even abortion were called female physicians. There was no female doctor. While growing up, Elizabeth Blackwell developed a penchant for the medical profession and after tons of rejections she got accepted at the Geneva Medical College in New York. She had also struggled to prepare to become a doctor, mostly relying on self study.
2. First Women-Only Managed Infirmary in the United States
After completing her education and having become a doctor she practiced in Paris. Later, Elizabeth Blackwell returned to New York and founded the first infirmary of its kind that was managed by only women. She was helped by her sister Emily who incidentally was the second woman to become a female physician. They had another cofounder in Dr. Marie Zakrzewska who they were both friends with. The infirmary specialized in caring for the poor and medical training for women doctors. She spearheaded the infirmary till 1874 when she parted ways with her sister following a rift and moved back to England permanently.
3. A Deft Musician
While the world remembers Blackwell as a smart mind and her contribution in the medical discipline including her vocal criticism of poor reforms, she was also a deft musician. Before she joined the medical college, she raised money by teaching music at an Asheville academy in North Caroline.
4. Contribution to Women Empowerment
Blackwell found the term female physician quite unacceptable and condescending. Her admission to the Geneva Medical College was actually an accident. Students were asked to vote and they all thought that even the prospect of her getting admitted was a joke. Her admission paved the way for numerous female doctors in the years to come. She changed the way the world looked at women being in medical profession.
5. Stand Against Perceived Vulgarity & Social Culpability
During her days in the Geneva Medical College in New York, one Dr. James Webster had asked her to skip the anatomy lecture on reproduction. He considered it to be inappropriate for a woman to attend the lecture along with male students when a male professor would impart the education on the subject. It was still taboo to discuss these issues with women, especially in public. Blackwell resisted and her protest did not just allow her to attend the lecture but the classes discussing such subjects were not treated as vulgar for women or for men having women in their presence thereon.
She also stood for socio moral stability and culpability after being exposed to the dismal state of affairs at a syphilitic ward at Blockley Almshouse in Philadelphia. That experience propelled her to right the thesis on typhus.
6. An Aspiring Surgeon
Blackwell was not only the first woman doctor in the United States but she could have also been the first woman surgeon of her time, had it not been for an accident. While assisting Dr. Hippolyte Blot in Paris and working as a student midwife, she spilled some contaminated solution in her eye when she was administering the treatment to an infant. The solution blinded her left eye which shattered her dream of being a surgeon.
7. First Woman in British Medical Register
Very much like the scenario in the United States, the British were not very welcoming of women doctors either. Although the scenario was slightly better, no woman doctor was listed in the medical register of General Medical Council. Elizabeth Blackwell returned to England after successfully leading the infirmary in New York till 1857. In 1858, she became the first woman to be listed in the medical register of the General Medical Council in England.
8. London School of Medicine for Women
Elizabeth Blackwell moved to England permanently in 1874. She founded the London School of Medicine for Women where she prepared women to pass the licensing exam of Apothecaries Hall. She was also a lecturer at the school, specializing in midwifery.