Elizabeth Blackwell – First U.S. Woman MD

Historical black and white portrait of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States. She is depicted with a serene expression, wearing a dark Victorian dress with a high collar and a brooch, and her hair is parted in the middle and smoothly styled.
Elizabeth Blackwell

I felt more determined than ever to become a physician, and thus place a strong barrier between me and all ordinary marriage. I must have something to engross my thoughts, some object in life which will fill this vacuum and prevent this sad wearing away of the heart.

But the struggle with natural repugnance to the medical line of life was so strong that I hesitated to pass the Rubicon, and fought many a severe battle with myself on the subject.

At this time I had not the slightest idea of how to become a physician, or of the course of study necessary for this purpose. As the idea seemed to gain force, however, I wrote to and consulted with several physicians, known to my family, in various parts of the country, as to the possibility of a lady becoming a doctor.

The answers I received were curiously unanimous. They all replied to the effect that the idea was a good one, but that it was impossible to accomplish it; that there was no way of obtaining such an education for a woman; that the education required was long and expensive; that there were innumerable obstacles in the way of such a course; and that, in short, the idea, though a valuable one, was impossible of execution.

This verdict, however, no matter from how great an authority, was rather an encouragement than otherwise to a young and active person who needed. an absorbing occupation.

If an idea, I reasoned, were really a valuable one, there must be some way of realising it. The idea of winning a doctor’s degree gradually assumed the aspect of a great moral struggle, and the moral fight possessed immense attraction for me.” – Elizabeth Blackwell

Elizabeth Blackwell wasn’t initially interested in pursuing a career in medicine. She was a teacher and she loved history and metaphysics. But she began to explore medicine after a “close friend who was dying suggested she would have been spared her worst suffering if her physician had been a woman.”

At the time, no medical schools in the U.S. accepted women. She applied to numerous programs. All rejected her except Geneva College, who accepted her after the faculty let the student body vote, who thinking this was “little more than a silly joke,” unanimously voted “yes.”

In school, she had to sit separate of her peers, was excluded at times from labs, was referred to as a “bad” woman by locals. But she worked hard and graduated first in her class in 1849. She then went on to practice as a physician, with others open a medical college for women, publish multiple books and eventually settle in London, where she worked as a professor of gynecology at the London School of Medicine for Women.

Sources: 

  1. Michals, Debra.  “Elizabeth Blackwell.”  National Women’s History Museum.  National Women’s History Museum, 2015.  Accessed November 9th, 2020.
  2. Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell.” Changing the Face of Medicine, National Institute of Health. Accessed November 9th, 2020.  
  3. Dr. Howard Markel. “How Elizabeth Blackwell became the first female doctor in the U.S.” Accessed November 9th, 2020.
  4. National Library of Medicine
  5. Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women. Autobiographical Sketches by Elizabeth Blackwell. Longmans, Green and Co, 1895.

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Click here to read a snapshot biography of another medical pioneer, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker.