Elizabeth Blackwell- America's First Woman Doctor
Elizabeth Blackwell did something in the fall of 1847 that no other woman in the United States had done up to that time—she walked through the doors of a medical school not as a visitor, patient, or chairwoman, but as a medical student.
While she had been finally accepted into a medical school, her classmates were far from cordial. She was viewed as an intruder into the then male dominated world of medicine. Even after she graduated from medical school she remained a virtual outcast. Eventually, however, her dedication and determination brought her acceptance and recognition.
Elizabeth had become a schoolteacher in Cincinnati, Ohio when she was seventeen years old. In the early 1800s a person could teach school if he or she was a high school graduate. While teaching school was an "acceptable" occupation for a woman in that era, she knew it wasn't for her.
Drawn to do something deeper and more meaningful with her life, she had a recurring notion to becoming a doctor. She thought it a ridiculous idea, and for a good reason—she didn't like being around sick people.
Since the idea of becoming a doctor wouldn't go away, she began working with a couple of doctors in their practices. Ironically, that time spent on the fringes of medicine inflamed, rather than dampened, the desire to becoming a physician.
Elizabeth applied to dozens of medical schools, and received dozens of rejections. She was turned down not because she was unqualified, but because she was a woman. She kept trying, though, and her persistence paid off when Geneva College (forerunner of Hobart College), in New York, accepted her into its medical school.
Being admitted to medical school was one thing, being accepted by the male students and the all male faculty was another thing. She was snubbed, ridiculed, and the victim of pranks.
When she stood her ground, and refused to be driven away, faculty and fellow students grudgingly accepted her. In 1849, at age 29, she became the first woman graduated from a medical school in the United States.
Elizabeth had her medical degree, but did it matter? She wanted to become a surgeon, but hospital after hospital turned down her request for training.
Stymied in the United States, she went to Paris, France believing French doctors would be more accepting of her. But French doctors and hospitals not only refused her training as a surgeon, they didn't even recognize her medical degree. She was encouraged to enroll at La Maternite' (a French training hospital) as a student midwife.
Her experience at La Maternite' was discouraging and humiliating. Although qualified to work with doctors, she instead scrubbed floors, washed hospital linen, and did other menial tasks in exchange for scraps of training.
After six months there, all hope of becoming a surgeon disappeared. Her left eye became infected, and she lost her vision in that eye. No hospital would accept a one-eyed doctor, man or woman, as a surgery student.
Elizabeth left France and went to her native England. During her stay there she became friends with Florence Nightingale, the woman who reformed and brought dignity to the nursing profession.
Arriving back in the United States in 1851, Elizabeth started her medical practice in New York City. The disdain for a woman physician was so great she couldn't even rent a room in a respectable boarding house. One landlady told her that if she rented a room to a female doctor, a mob might wreck her place. Thus, Doctor Blackwell was forced to borrow money so she could buy a house. She used her home as her medical office, but had few patients.
She was frustrated but not discouraged. With few patients to treat, and plenty of time on her hands, she volunteered to speak on medical subjects to women's groups. She gave a series of lectures to a group of Quaker women on the importance of proper hygiene, exercise, and nutrition. Delivering those lectures changed her life.
The Quaker women were impressed with Dr. Blackwell. They promised to raise the necessary funds, if she would open a clinic to help residents of one of New York City's worst slums. She agreed to do it.
After the clinic was operating, Elizabeth set two major goals for herself: to advance the cause for women doctors, and at the same time give even more help to the poor.
She did both by opening the world's first hospital staffed entirely by women. It became known as the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. Later, the name was shortened to the New York Infirmary. It is still open today.
Besides being a medical refuge for the poor, the Infirmary gave women medical students needed training not available in other hospitals. At the same time, the New York Infirmary was different in many respects from other hospitals.
Hospitals in the mid-1800s were generally dirty, drab places. Doctor Blackwell, however, adopted Florence Nightingale's fanatical attitude about cleanliness.
The Infirmary was sparkling clean. There were ruffled curtains on the windows, and each bed had a white bedspread. Bed linen was changed every day, and floors were constantly being scrubbed. Patients were bathed regularly, and bandages were changed frequently. None of these things were common practice in most hospitals of that era.
Elizabeth recognized not only the health benefits from keeping the place clean, but the psychological value as well. "Ugly, dirty surroundings dishearten people," she declared. "It is hard for them to get well."
Many doctors visiting the Infirmary were impressed by its low mortality, yet couldn't see the connection between her mania for cleanliness and the extraordinarily high recovery rate for her patients.
The superior care given at the Infirmary mirrored the high quality of training students were receiving in the adjacent Women's Medical College. It was better training than many men's medical schools where some would-be doctors received their medical diplomas without ever having examined a living person.
At Women's Medical College, there were traditional classroom studies, but doctors to-be spent hundreds of hours working in the Infirmary's wards, the pharmacy, and attending to sick patients living in crowded tenements. If a woman made it through the rigorous training, and then passed grueling examinations in the practical and theoretical aspects of medicine, she received her medical degree.
In 1869, Emily Blackwell, Elizabeth's sister, and another woman doctor, Maria Zakazewska, took over running the Infirmary. Elizabeth returned to England to live—but not retire. There she worked tirelessly for admission of women to medical schools in England.
It was a bitter and essentially unsuccessful struggle. British newspapers and overall public sentiment opposed to the idea of women doctors.
Doctor Blackwell, however, had a solution for England's women who wanted to become doctors. "Start your own medical college," she told them. She was nearly fifty years old when she plunged into the arduous task of fund raising and planning the curriculum for the London School of Medicine for Women.
In 1875, she accepted a professorship at the school, and she taught there until she retired in 1907.
Despite her age and personal health problems, she devoted herself to educating the public on health matters. She wrote magazine and newspaper articles and gave lectures on the value of good food, regular bathing, exercise, and sunshine.
She worked to have London slums cleaned up, and better medical treatment provided for the poor and aged. She campaigned for national health insurance, old age benefits, and low cost housing.
Her efforts weren't always warmly received by landlords and politicians. She was regularly maligned in the newspapers as a “crazy woman.”
While she may not have been popular with those in power, she did live to see basic hygiene taught to every schoolchild in England—one of her most cherished projects.
Though medically progressive, it is ironic that Elizabeth was opposed to one of medicine's greatest advances—vaccinations. She did not think massive immunization of children and adults was a good idea.
She believed proper hygiene, good sanitation and eradication of disease carrying rodents and other vermin was far more effective than inoculations in stopping the spread of disease and illness.
On May 31, 1910, 89-year old Elizabeth Blackwell, M.D., died in Hastings, Sussex, England. For 63 she had been a dreamer and a revolutionist. A dreamer in that she wanted a career in medicine, wanted to help other women become doctors, and wanted everyone to have good health care. As a revolutionist she went out and did the things necessary to make her dreams come true.
Richard Bauman has been a freelance writer for more than 30 years. He enjoys
writing about unusual places and events and the people involved in them. His
latest book is 'Pranks in Print—A Collection of Fake Stories, Phony Ads, and other
Media Mischief'. He and his wife, Donna, have been married 55 years, and call
West Covina, Calif., home. His website is www.richardjbauman.com.