Elizabeth Blackwell: America's First Female Doctor

By | January 14, 2019

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Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910), the first woman (in 1849), to receive a medical degree in the U.S. Undated photograph. Source: (gettyimages.com)

Elizabeth Blackwell was born in 1821 in England. Her family was affluent and she was educated by private tutors. When Elizabeth was eleven, her family fell on hard times and they immigrated to America. Her parents were quite progressive and became involved in the abolitionist movement. They lived in a few different areas before settling in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her father, Samuel Blackwell, passed away leaving the family with no money. To help support the family, Elizabeth, her two sisters and mother all became educators.

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Geneva Medical College, New York Source: (wikipedia.org)

A Woman Doctor?

Elizabeth Blackwell was working as a teacher, an acceptable profession for a woman of the nineteenth century. A close friend was dying and confided to Elizabeth that she wished she had a female doctor as she would have been more comfortable. This inspired Elizabeth to pursue the medical field. At that time, there were not many medical colleges and none of them accepted women. Most physicians began as an apprentice to an experienced doctor. While there were a few unlicensed women practicing medicine, there were no licensed female doctors. When she was teaching, she stayed with the family of a physician, who mentored her. She went to Philadelphia, hoping her Quaker friends would help her gain entrance to medical school. She applied to every medical school in the country and was rejected by all. She was persistent and was eventually accepted to Geneva College in New York. Her acceptance was actually a practical joke. The college never thought she would actually show up, but show up she did! She dealt with many obstacles while in medical school. The professors made her sit separately from the males and did not allow her to participate in labs. She was shunned by many of the Quaker community for going against her role as a woman. Her hard work and intelligence ultimately earned her the respect of those professors and her classmates. She ended up graduating first in her class!