Pioneer Woman Physician and Educator

Physician's Money Digest, September15 2003, Volume 10, Issue 17

They thought it was a bigjoke. Geneva MedicalCollege's faculty waslargely opposed toaccepting the application of 28-year-old Elizabeth Blackwell.Considered highly inappropriateat the time, no women held a professionaldegree to practice medicine.Seventeen top US medical schools had rejected herunusual request for admission. Uncertain what to do, thecollege administrators of Geneva in upstate New Yorkposed the issue to the student body.

Historical accounts vary, but either because theythought they were playing along with the administrators'apparent joke or because they thought it wouldthoroughly annoy them, the students voted her in. Thelaughs quickly subsided as her determination and intelligencesent her to the top of her class. Dr. Blackwellreceived her MD degree in 1849, becoming the first certifiedwoman physician.

Against the Grain

Perhaps her childhood paved the way for an unusualcareer choice for her day. Her family held a highregard for individuality, education, and equality. She wasborn in 1821 and raised for a short while in England.Not belonging to the Church of England, which operatedall schools in the country, her parents made theunusual decision to home-school all 9 of their children.

The family later moved to the United States, whereher father became involved in the antislavery movement.After Mr. Blackwell's death, Mrs. Blackwellfounded a boarding school to support the family. Dr.Blackwell taught at the school before pursuing herstudies in medicine.

Today, many point to Dr. Blackwell as a champion ofwomen's rights, yet she had no lifelong dream of becomingthe world's first female medical doctor. Rather, anemotional encounter urged her to take up the cause. Afemale friend, who was dying of cancer, insisted thatBlackwell's intelligence would serve the practice of medicinewell. She said women's needs were not being adequatelymet at the time, and a woman doctor would bebetter able to help women patients. Struggling with theidea, she finally conceded, based on her strong belief inthe education of women. And so she pioneered theimprovement of women's health.

After graduating from medical school, Dr. Blackwellpursued further medical studies in London and Paris.But upon her return to the United States, the clinics andhospitals, which were uneasy with the idea of a womandoctor, refused to grant her a position. She applied toseveral institutions, meeting rejection, and so returned toher education roots.

Dr. Blackwell turned her attention to social andhygienic reform, particularly promoting medical educationfor women. She wrote and lectured throughoutthe country, championing preventive medicine. Sheadvocated proper nutrition and sanitation practices.She championed the right of women to study medicinealongside men at the established medical schools.Though she was unable to gain support for this, shedid witness the opening of several women's medicalcolleges, including her own.

Women's Medicine

Dr. Blackwell's lecture audiences grew, and eventually,the women in attendance began to seek hermedical help. She started a practice based on thesepatients. In time, the practice grew into a large clinicfor impoverished women and children, becoming theNew York Infirmary for Women and Children, whichstill exists today as the New York Infirmary/BeckmanDowntown Hospital. The clinic evolved into a respectedwomen's medical school.

In 1868, the Women's Medical College of the NewYork Infirmary opened with 15 students. She establishedvery high standards for her students, particularly emphasizingthe importance of proper sanitation and hygieneto prevent diseases.

She later returned to England, where she expandedmedical opportunities for women as she had in theUnited States. She became chair of gynecology at theLondon School of Medicine for Women in England,cofounded the National Health Society, and was thefirst woman to be listed on the British MedicalRegister. Her enthusiastic spark inspired many otherwomen to follow her lead.

Dr. Blackwell, who died in 1910, was a true medicalpioneer, bridging a neglected gap in women's health andeducation, while focusing her attention on the publichealth needs of the urban poor.