Elizabeth Blackwell: First Woman Doctor in the U.S.
Elizabeth Blackwell, an important figure in both the history of medicine and the women’s rights movement, achieved a historic triumph on Jan. 23, 1849, when she was awarded her Medical Degree by Geneva Medical College in New York. With that distinction she became the first woman doctor in U.S. history. She would go on to practice medicine, open the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, establish women’s medical schools in both England and the U.S., and write about the rights of women to be educated and to enter the medical profession.
A native of England from a strong Quaker family, Blackwell’s family immigrated to America in 1832 when she was 11. She later pursued her interest in medicine by reading extensively in several doctor’s libraries, but none of the leading medical colleges were willing to accept a female applicant. As she proved throughout her life, however, Blackwell’s perseverance was as strong as her intellect.
There is a story that the only reason she got into Geneva Medical College was because the all-male student body voted to accept her application believing it was a hoax. Whether that is true or not, there is no doubt that once Blackwell arrived she worked hard and did well, graduating first in her class in 1849.
She overcame the initial reluctance of her classmates and teachers in college—but American society in 1849 posed additional challenges for the new graduate to face, as the following newspaper articles show. While some of these articles are supportive, others reflect the public’s resistance to the thought of a woman doctor—an obstacle Blackwell would go on to conquer in her long life and career. She died back in England in 1910 at the age of 89.
This flippant notice was published by the New London Daily Chronicle (New London, Connecticut) on Feb. 1, 1849:
Miss Elizabeth Blackwell a few days since received the degree of M. D. from the medical college of Geneva, N.Y., and intends to enter upon the practice of the profession. She will probably be most successful in “diseases of the heart,” and if she is particularly pretty, it is to be feared, create quite as many cases as she prescribes for.
Another New London paper was content to announce Blackwell’s news without resorting to sarcasm. This notice was published by the New London Democrat (New London, Connecticut) on Feb. 3, 1849:
Miss Elizabeth Blackwell has received the diploma of M. D. at the Geneva Medical College, whereupon she replied, “I thank you, sir. With the help of the Most High, it shall be the effort of my life to shed honor on this diploma.”
The New York Star published an editorial saying women make fine nurses, “but beyond that we fear the consequences.” The Albany Express reprinted that editorial, and its article in turn was reprinted by the Richmond Whig (Richmond, Virginia) on Feb. 9, 1849:
A Female M. D.
The New York Star says: “We are glad to see a liberal feeling in the Faculty in relation to admitting females, but we fear it as a principle and a precedent. Entrust them to be good nurses and familiar with the diseases of females, but beyond that we fear the consequences. Miss Elizabeth Blackwell, of Philadelphia, who has been pursuing her studies for three years past at the Geneva Medical College, received the degree of M. D. at the annual commencement of that institution on the 23d instant. The subject of her thesis was ‘ship fever.’ The appearance of the female Aesculapius [Latin name for the ancient Greek god of medicine and healing—ed.] on the stage was greeted with marked approbation. On receiving her degree she was heard to say: ‘With the help of the Most High it shall be the effort of my life to shed honor on this diploma.’”—Albany Express.
Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave, noted abolitionist, and supporter of women’s rights, printed an editorial supportive of Blackwell in his abolitionist newspaper. This editorial was published by the North Star (Rochester, New York) on April 20, 1849:
Elizabeth Blackwell, M. D.
In a recent number of the National Era appeared an article from the pen of Dr. Elder [correction: Dr. Bailey—ed.], giving some account of this very remarkable young lady, who is the first Medical Doctor of her sex, in the United States. Not that it is anything very great or remarkable to be a doctor; for there is little great in allopathic practice, except its darkness—or remarkable except its fallacy; but Miss Blackwell is remarkable in that she has succeeded in getting a diploma in spite of opposition from many of the influential Galens [ancient Roman physician—ed.] in this country. There must be a large proportion of the right metal in her composition, or she would never have dared to make the attempt, in opposition to sneers and jeers of the ignorant and self-conceited, about the “sphere,” the “proprieties,” the “decencies,” and all that sort of fudge. Miss Blackwell thinks (and she is right) that whatever a woman can do, that she may do. If she can think, why should she not think? If she has a mind capable of grasping the most abstruse science, what good reason can be urged against her studying that science.
The following editorial is an interesting one. It begins with such premises as “the delicacy and shrinking sensibility that is the peculiar attribute of women” and that the “retirement and quietude of the family circle” are “more agreeable to the female disposition.” Yet it goes on to concede there is a need for women doctors (albeit, in the writer’s narrow view, only to serve other women) and concludes by thanking Elizabeth Blackwell for setting “an example for others to follow” and calls for the establishment of “female Medical Schools.”
This editorial was published by the Cincinnati Enquirer and reprinted by the Daily Ohio Statesman (Columbus, Ohio) on April 25, 1849:
Miss Elizabeth Blackwell, M. D.
A late number of the National Era contains a sketch of this young lady’s history, which is not only interesting, but is instructive also in showing what can be accomplished by the gentle sex in the way of acquiring knowledge, when stimulated thereto by a proper object. Our purpose, however, in referring to the case, is not to remark on Miss Blackwell’s perseverance or mental acquirements, which are certainly highly creditable to her, but upon the association of her sex with the profession she has chosen.
This young lady is said to be the first Medical Doctor of her sex in the United States. She is a regular graduate of the Geneva Medical School, having received her diploma from that institution this spring. In the sketch referred to, it is well said that, “her case is naturally enough one of those questionable matters upon which there must be a great variety of opinions.” The novelty of the thing is calculated to make one, who gives it but little thought, set it down as decidedly incompatible with the female character, as much so as is the profession of the law or arms. And then, there is something in the idea of surgical instruments, blood-letting, calomel dosing, and such like things, repugnant to our notions of the delicacy and shrinking sensibility that is the peculiar attribute of women. The retirement and quietude of the family circle are what we suppose to be more agreeable to the female disposition, and where she can with more propriety dispense those blessings which Heaven seems to have made her its agent to distribute.
Yet, for all that, it must be confessed, that in a sick chamber she is a “ministering angel”; and that there are diseases peculiar to females that should be treated by women and women alone. The whole branch of Obstetrics should be left entirely to female practitioners. It is repugnant to our notions of propriety, that any other than female doctors should be engaged in that branch. There are other cases, too, which female delicacy painfully shrinks from in consulting a male doctor about. A female doctor would of course direct her studies particularly, and confine her practice altogether to the diseases and cases that are peculiar to her sex. We may be alone in these notions, yet they are sincerely entertained and have been by us for a long time.
We think there should be female Medical Schools, where the science of Medicine and Anatomy could be taught to such as wished to learn the profession. We have no doubt there would be numbers of strong minded women who would avail themselves of such opportunities to qualify themselves for Medical practitioners among their sex; and we express our gratification that Miss Blackwell has set an example for others to follow.—Cin. Enquirer.
Click here for more articles about American Women’s History.