Women Who Impacted Medicine: Elizabeth Blackwell

March 8, 2016

Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to achieve a medical degree in the United States. She played an essential role in paving the way for women in the medical profession and was a leader in women’s health.

How It All Began

Elizabeth Blackwell was born in England in 1821 to Samuel Blackwell and Hannah Lane. Samuel was a progressive man, creating a name for himself as a social activist, and it was inevitable that he’d pass his ideals down to his children. Elizabeth was raised to forge a path never before traveled, a road she followed well as she stood against social norms and promoted equality in her field.

Medicine didn’t begin as a passion for Elizabeth. She wrote, “I hated everything connected with the body and could not bear the sight of a medical book.” Those are strong words for someone who would become a pioneer in medicine. It was the words of a dying friend, claiming that she would have suffered less had her physician been a woman, that pushed Elizabeth on the path to become a doctor. So began her journey of resilience and determination in the face of adversity.

Receiving Her Education

Upon deciding to become a doctor, Elizabeth studied with two physicians over the span of a year, reading medical books in her spare time in order to build the skills she would need to gain acceptance into medical school. She applied to every college in New England and New York and finally received an acceptance letter from a rural college in Geneva. It was sent as a practical joke, and when Elizabeth showed up, she was treated as an imposter, forced to sit separate from the men in her class. She persisted in her studies, however, and soon earned the respect of her fellow students as she graduated first in her class in 1849.

Finding Work in a Man’s World

Upon obtaining her medical degree, Elizabeth returned to Europe to further her studies and training. However, she was met with even more resistance than when receiving her education in the United States. It was at this time that she found herself immersed in midwifery and developed ideas such as preventative measures and personal hygiene, two aspects of healthcare that were often overlooked, were highly effective in limiting illness.

In 1851, Elizabeth returned to the United States only to face the same lack of work and respect as a physician. She was turned away from hospitals, clinics, and even prevented from renting space to practice. Eventually, however, she was able to open her own small clinic treating impoverished women, an endeavor that grew into the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. The opening of the institution offered not only excellent care to less fortunate women and children, but provided opportunities and support for female physicians to practice medicine.

Promoting Education and Reform

Not only did Dr. Blackwell create working opportunities for women doctors, but she eventually opened the Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary, a school that was reputed to maintain an even more competitive curriculum than some medical colleges for men.

After establishing the school, Dr. Blackwell traveled back to England to open another practice and became an educator of gynecology at the London School of Medicine for Women. Even as her career slowed and her health declined, Elizabeth supported and campaigned for reform in the medical community.

Women’s Health Today

Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell was a pioneer for women in the medical field, not only as a supporter of female physicians but as an advocate for women’s health. She began a revolution in the medical community that remains strong to this day.

OB-GYN Women’s Centre of Lakewood Ranch is proud to be a part of that community by providing compassionate and personalized treatment and healthcare for the women of Manatee County. For more information about our practice and the services we offer please give us a call.