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Elizabeth Blackwell

Elizabeth Blackwell Photo

Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to have pursued a medical education and to have made a career out of it. Blackwell was a renowned physician and activist of the modern times.  Blackwell was born in Bristol, England in 1821 at a time when the women weren’t allowed access to education and lived as dependents on either their fathers or husbands. Blackwell, along with her siblings, received a home-based education and lived a happy, content life. Blackwell’s father, Samuel Blackwell, ran a sugarcane business and believed in raising strong and independent children. When Blackwell was 11, conditions in Bristol became difficult, the entire country was swept away by a bout of cholera and subsistence became difficult. Foreseeing further difficult times, Blackwell’s father decided to move to America and in 1832 the family settled in New York City. Six years after their arrival in New York City, the family made another move, this time to Cincinnati, Ohio. Blackwell’s father struggled to maintain life as they knew in England and did not manage to maintain the family’s finances at a steady pace. Within a month of the family’s arrival in Ohio, Blackwell lost her father to an unexpected fever, which meant that the financial strain of the family was now for the children to bear.

At the age of 18, Blackwell along with her sisters and mother started a school called The Cincinnati English and French Academy for Young Ladies, where the learned and Blackwell sisters taught in all subjects and kept the family’s finances going. In 1842, two years after the school was established, the sisters decided to close the school down, but Blackwell continued to teach as a private tutor. It was during this time, when Blackwell was offered a teaching position at Henderson, Kentucky. Blackwell took up the opportunity and left home to teach in another state. Despite her great affection for the profession, Blackwell wasn’t happy with the teaching conditions of schools in America, particularly the south and chose to return back home within a year of having moved out.

It was during her return that events took a turn. Blackwell was visiting an ailing friend, Mary Donaldson, combating cancer, who informed her that it had become difficult for her to receive treatment from male doctors and had there been a female doctor in play, she would’ve had a better shot at having her disease cured. Donaldson then suggested that since Blackwell was profoundly educated and aware of the world she should pursue an education in medicine. Blackwell brushed the idea aside at the time, but couldn’t stop contemplating. Blackwell had been raised with standards that supported her to speak when in right. Blackwell was vocal about various social causes and did not shy away from her activist work. The idea of a female physician began to appeal to her and she consulted several physician and doctor in her family who all commended the idea but did warn her of the grave repercussions and obstacles in the process. This did not deter Blackwell from applying to medical colleges. In 1845, Blackwell decided to save up for the expenses that her medical education would entail and took up another teaching position, this time as a teaching in music at an academy in Asheville, North Carolina. Meanwhile, Blackwell read books on medicine to learn all that she could. When the academy in Ashville closed unexpectedly, Blackwell found another position at a boarding school in Charleston, South Carolina and thorough these jobs managed to save $3000 that she would require for a decent medical education.

In 1847, Blackwell set forth to Philadelphia, known for its rich medical education and applied to the best colleges there with the hope of gaining an admission in a highly reputed college. Blackwell also applied to key medical colleges in New York with the same intent. Rejected by all 29 colleges Blackwell had applied to, she did not lose heart and started applying to the lower end colleges, one of which was Geneva Medical College in New York State. The faculty at Geneva Medical College found the idea of a female medical college quite amusing and allowed their all-male student population to vote on her acceptance. Never thinking that female student would sign up for such an education, the student body voted ‘yes’ as a joke and to their surprise saw Blackwell join their ranks in November that year. The next two years weren’t easy for Blackwell for she faced a lot of resentment and isolation at the hands of the prejudiced system.

In January 1849, at the age of 28, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to receive an M.D. degree from an American medical school. Blackwell furthered the cause of her education by traveling to Europe where she worked for clinics in London and Paris. Blackwell trained in midwifery and found a resident doctor who mentored her in obstetrics. Unfortunately, it was then that Blackwell contracted purulent ophthalmia which completely compromised one of her eyes and shattered her dream of becoming a surgeon.

In 1850, Blackwell interned at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in England and then returned to New York to start her own practice. After facing a lot of resistance, Blackwell started publishing papers and delivering lectures to establish a standing and gain recognition. In 1853, when one of Blackwell’s sister completed her medical education and joined her as a physician, together they opened a clinic in the slums of New York City for women and children. They were then joined by Dr. Marie E. Zakrzewska, a trained midwife from Berlin who had studied previously with Blackwell.

Together the Blackwell sisters and Zakrzewska started The New York Infirmary for Women and Children, which exists till date and along with medical treatment also trained young women in medicine for their own benefit.  Blackwell became the first woman to have her name entered on the Medical Register of the United Kingdom and also founded the Woman’s Medical College in New York.

Blackwell also helped form the National Health Society of England in 1871 and three years later also participated in the creation and opening of the New Hospital and London School of Medicine for Women.

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