Elizabeth Blackwell, medical pioneer and advocate for women in medicine

Working in scientific fields is often an exercise in perseverance, and few could attest to this character as Elizabeth Blackwell did. Despite numerous financial challenges, rejections due to her gender, as well as infection and loss of eyesight in her left eye, nothing could derail Dr. Blackwell from her dream of not only becoming a doctor, but also seeing other women attain the same privilege. DiscovHER brings you her amazing story.

Elizabeth Blackwell was born in England in 1821 to a large family of devout Quakers. She had 8 siblings, four brothers, and four sisters. Thanks to their faith, all the children were brought up equally regardless of their gender, and with a strong sense of social justice. It was only natural therefore, that Elizabeth would dream of becoming a doctor, and would support abolitionism, two points of view that the rest of the world thought were absurd!

Her family moved to America when she was 11, and her father died shortly afterwards. The family’s financial situation had already been precarious prior to his death, and therefore Elizabeth had to take up a teaching job in order to save up for her medical education, in a school that she and her sisters had started. It closed down a few years later, and Elizabeth then took on one teaching job after the other across different states, in her attempt to find a medical school that would accept her, and finances that would support her. Needless to say, her jobs were driven by necessity rather than passion, and she was an unremarkable teacher.

After years of rejection based around different opinions surrounding her gender - 1) that she was a woman and therefore intellectually inferior, or 2) that she might actually prove equal to the task, prove to be competition, and that she could not expect the men to hand her such an opportunity - she was finally accepted into Geneva Medical College (now Hobart College) in 1847. Her admission was a fluke, albeit a welcome one. The admissions faculty put the issue to a vote by the 150 male students of what was to become her class, and stipulated that the vote had to be unanimous, or else she wouldn’t be accepted. Thinking it was a joke, all the men voted for her admission, and the first step to the realization of her lifelong dream was achieved. In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to achieve a medical degree in the United States, graduating at the top of her class.

Afterwards, finding work as a female physician proved even harder, forcing her to travel to Britain and France in search of opportunities. In France, she acquired work under student midwife status - lower than her qualification - where she was mentored by Hippolyte Blot, a young resident physician at the hospital where she worked. By the end of her training, she had gained so much experience in gynecology and obstetrics, that even renowned doctors were hailing her as one who would become the best obstetrician in the US. She eventually settled in New York where she set up a small dispensary that became the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, an institution that was staffed and managed by women. She and her sisters assisted the North during the American Civil War by providing nursing service, in accordance with their abolitionist beliefs.

Beyond her practice though, Dr. Blackwell did not forget the struggle that women faced in trying to enter the medical profession. She often visited Britain, where she worked with female medical pioneers on that side of the Atlantic, such as Dr. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, first female MD in Britain, and Dr. Sophia Jex-Blake, to not only improve women’s access to medical training, but to also ensure they would be afforded better medical employment opportunities.

While some of the objections she held to obvious tenets of modern medicine seem a little odd today (she did not believe in germ theory), Dr. Blackwell was still a game changer in her time. Thanks to her, many doors opened for the many amazing female medical practitioners we know today.

Inspired by this pioneer? Let us know@4womeninscience.

For Women in Science

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