The first woman in America to receive a medical degree, Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) championed the participation of women in the medical profession and ultimately opened her own medical college for women. Born near Bristol, England on February 3, 1821, Blackwell was the third of nine children of Hannah Lane and Samuel Blackwell, a sugar refiner, Quaker, and abolitionist. Blackwell’s famous relatives included brother Henry, a well-known abolitionist and women’s suffrage supporter who married women’s rights activist Lucy Stone; Emily Blackwell, who followed her sister into medicine; and sister-in-law Antoinette Brown Blackwell, the first ordained female minister in a mainstream Protestant denomination.
In 1832, the Blackwell family moved to America, settling in Cincinnati, Ohio. In 1838, Samuel Blackwell died, leaving the family penniless during a national financial crisis. Elizabeth, her mother, and two older sisters worked as teachers until she was inspired to pursue medicine by a dying friend who said her experience would have been better had she had a female physician. While teaching, Blackwell lived with the families of two southern physicians who mentored her. In 1847, she returned to Philadelphia, with hopes that friends could assist her entrance into medical school. Rejected everywhere she applied, she was ultimately admitted to Geneva College in rural New York, but her acceptance letter was actually intended as a practical joke.
Blackwell faced discrimination and obstacles in college, from professors forcing her to sit separately at lectures and being excluded from labs. Local townspeople shunned her as a “bad” woman for defying her gender role. Blackwell eventually earned the respect of professors and classmates, graduating first in her class in 1849. She began to emphasize preventative care and personal hygiene, recognizing that male doctors often caused epidemics by failing to wash their hands between patients.
In 1851, Dr. Blackwell returned to New York City, where discrimination against female physicians meant few patients and difficulty practicing in hospitals and clinics. With help from Quaker friends, Blackwell opened a small clinic to treat poor women. In 1857, she opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children with her sister Dr. Emily Blackwell and colleague Dr. Marie Zakrzewska. Its mission included providing positions for women physicians. During the Civil War, the Blackwell sisters trained nurses for Union hospitals.