Biographies & Images

Elizabeth Blackwell

Photograph of Elizabeth Blackwell
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Born February 3, 1821
Birthplace Near Bristol, England
Died May 31, 1910
Grave Site Kilmun, Argyllshire, in the Highlands of Scotland
Contribution The first woman physician to graduate from a modern medical school. She spent her life opening doors for women in the medical profession.
Related Web Site Hobart and William Smith Colleges: Elizabeth Blackwell, M.D.

Elizabeth Blackwell was born near Bristol, England on February 3, 1821. She was the third daughter of nine surviving children of Samuel Blackwell, a prosperous sugar refiner, and Hannah (Lane) Blackwell.

Blackwell’s father was a social activist who believed in woman’s rights, temperance (abstinence from alcoholic liquors), and abolitionism (the elimination of slavery). He ensured that his children were educated, hiring private tutors who taught his daughters and sons the same subjects. Many of his children grew to share their father’s reform principles. His daughters Elizabeth and Emily became pioneering physicians. His son Samuel married Antoinette Brown Blackwell, the first ordained woman minister, while son Henry married Lucy Stone, prominent women’s rights activist.

The Blackwells moved from England to New York City in 1832, when Samuel Blackwell’s sugar refinery was destroyed in a fire. Once in America, the family struggled to survive. Although Blackwell’s father started another refinery, his idealistic attempts to use beet sugar rather than cane sugar (which was produced by slave labor) were unsuccessful. After three years in New York City, the family moved to Jersey City, New Jersey. There they suffered further financial losses during the Panic of 1837, and relocated to Cincinnati, Ohio in May 1838. In August of the same year, Blackwell’s father died.

Blackwell earned a living as a teacher from the time that her father died until her entry into medical school in 1847. She taught first with her mother and sisters in a private school which they established in Cincinnati and then, from 1845 to 1847, in Kentucky and the Carolinas. During this period, Blackwell became increasingly involved in reform movements. She resolved to become a physician, more as a means to achieve her ideals than as an end in itself. She pursued her goal of studying medicine privately while she was still teaching, first with John Dickson in Asheville, North Carolina and then with his brother, Samuel, in Charleston, South Carolina.

In May 1847 Blackwell moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with the intention of entering medical school, even as she continued to study medicine privately. She was initially turned down by every school where she applied. She was finally accepted at Geneva College (later Hobart and William Smith Colleges) in Geneva, New York, actually as the result of a joke -- the administration was hesitant to admit her and threw the decision to the students, who laughingly said yes.

Blackwell encountered hostility as she began her studies in November of 1847, but she eventually became accepted by her classmates. She graduated first in her class on January 23, 1849. Upon her graduation she traveled to England, where she studied in hospitals in Birmingham and London. She then moved to Paris, France where she was forced to enroll as a student midwife in order to practice at La Maternité. While at La Maternité, she contracted a disease that eventually caused her to lose sight in one eye. Because of this loss, she was unable to pursue her dream of becoming a surgeon.

Blackwell returned to New York City in 1851. Because she was a woman she was barred from city dispensaries and hospitals and unable to rent appropriate quarters for her practice. In 1853 she finally opened a clinic in a poor section of the city, where she treated women and children. After a few years, she was joined by her sister Emily (now also a doctor) as well as Dr. Marie E. Zakrzewska (who later founded the New England Hospital for Women and Children). By 1857 the women had expanded their clinic into a hospital -- the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. During her time in New York, Blackwell also adopted an orphan, Katherine Barry, who stayed with Blackwell throughout the rest of her life.

Blackwell returned to England for a year in August 1858, where she became the first woman to have her name entered on the Medical Register of the United Kingdom in January 1859. Shortly after, she returned to the United States, which was then on the brink of the Civil War.

After the outbreak of the Civil War, Blackwell helped to form the Woman’s Central Relief Association in New York City. This association was instrumental in establishing the United States Sanitary Commission (1861), a large organization (made up mainly of women) that aided the Union army by providing food, clothing and medical supplies and services to soldiers.

After the Civil War, Blackwell began to work toward a long-held dream of setting up a medical college for women.Image of an envelope commemorating the first day of issue of the Elizabeth Blackwell postage stamp This dream was realized in 1868 with the opening of the Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary, in New York City. She accepted an appointment as its first chair of hygiene. Although the school continued to exist until the Cornell University Medical School (also in New York City) opened its doors to women in 1899, Blackwell’s stay there was short-lived. In 1869 she returned to England, where she would spend the rest of her life. There, she helped to form the National Health Society in 1871, and accepted a chair in gynecology at the New Hospital and London School of Medicine for Women in 1875. She resigned the chair a year later to spend the rest of her life lecturing and writing.

During the next thirty years, she published Counsel to Parents on the Moral Education of Their Children (1878), a pamphlet entitled Christian Socialism (1882), The Human Element in Sex (1884), an autobiography entitled Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women (1895), and Essays in Medical Sociology (1902), which is a compilation of her major publications and addresses. In these publications, Blackwell stated her beliefs that many medical diseases could be prevented by proper hygiene and public sanitation. She also wrote that medical ills were often caused by problems in society such as poverty and lack of education. She was a strong proponent of moral reform. Moral reformers believed that men and women should be held to the same standards relating to behavior.

Blackwell also had ties to the women’s rights movement from its earliest days. She was proudly proclaimed as a pioneer for women in medicine as early as the Adjourned Convention in Rochester, New York in August 1848, two weeks after the First Woman’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls. The same year she corresponded with suffragist Emily Collins on the issue of women’s rights, and she also sent letters of support to Susan B. Anthony and to Women’s Rights Conventions. In the late 1880s, the Fortnightly journal in Great Britain published six hundred names of prominent women for suffrage, and Blackwell’s name appeared among those medical practitioners who lent their names to the cause.

Blackwell died on May 31, 1910 in Hastings, England at the age of 89. She was buried in the churchyard in Kilmun, a place she loved in Argyllshire, in the Highlands of Scotland.

Bibliography of Suggested Books & Articles
Garraty, John A. and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Greene, Carol, Elizabeth Blackwell: First Woman Doctor ("A Rookie Biography"), Chicago: Childrens Press, 1991 (this is an ‘easy reader’ for the very young).
History of Woman Suffrage,
v. 1 - Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, Susan B. Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage, eds. 2d. ed., Rochester, NY: Charles Mann, 1889 (c1881) (Reprint, Source Book Press, 1970)
v. 2 -Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, Susan B. Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage, eds. 2d. ed., Rochester, NY: 1881 (Reprint, Source Book Press, 1970)
v. 3 -Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, Susan B. Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage, eds. 2d. ed., Rochester, NY: 1881 (Reprint, Source Book Press, 1970)
v. 4 -Anthony, Susan B. and Ida Husted Harper, eds., Rochester, NY: 1902 (Reprint Source Book Press, 1970)
v. 5 - Harper, Ida Husted, ed., NAWSA, 1922 (Reprint Source Book Press, 1970)
v. 6 - Harper, Ida Husted, ed., NAWSA, 1922 (Reprint Source Book Press, 1970)
James, Edward T., Janet Wilson James and Paul S. Boyer, eds., Notable American Women, 1607-1950, v. 1, pp. 161-165 (entry by Elizabeth H. Thomson), Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press (Harvard University), 1971.

Sherr, et al., Susan B. Anthony Slept Here, Geneva site mentioned at p. 308.

 
Bibliography of Suggested Web Sites
(all current as of 1/27/00 or 1/28/00)
Hobart and William Smith Colleges, "The Elizabeth Blackwell Award," http://www.hws.edu/HIS/blackwell/bwaward/index.html
Library of Congress, American Memory, "Letter, Elizabeth Blackwell to Baroness Anne Isabella Milbanke Byron,..." in Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division’s First 100 Years, at http://memory.loc.gov.
  National Women’s Hall of Fame, "The Women of the Hall--Elizabeth Blackwell," http://www.greatwomen.org/profs/blackwell_el.php
"Vita [and Biography] on Elizabeth Blackwell at http://vms.www.uwplatt.edu/~wise/blackwell/blackwell.html

 

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