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Elizabeth Blackwell: the first woman to qualify as a doctor in America

22 Jul, 2013
Elizabeth Blackwell. Photomechanical print by Swaine.

Elizabeth Blackwell. Photomechanical print by Swaine.

by Sarah Blackmore, University of Bristol

Most people, if asked to name historical influential females in the world of medicine, would probably start with Florence Nightingale. Obviously there are many more names that could be proposed but most, for various reasons, are not so well known. So when the University of Bristol planned a new health research institute (supported by the Wellcome Trust) they decided to raise the profile of one of Bristol’s greatest unsung heroes: Elizabeth Blackwell.

Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to qualify as a doctor in America and the first woman to have her name entered in the British General Medical Council’s medical register in 1859.

Born in Bristol in 1821 to Hannah and Samuel Blackwell, Elizabeth and family emigrated to America when she was 11 years old. Unfortunately Samuel died in 1838 leaving his wife and nine children in financial difficulties. After his death, Elizabeth and her sisters began teaching and set up a school to provide the family with financial stability. When a family friend became terminally ill and claimed she would have received more considerate treatment from a female doctor, Elizabeth became determined to train as a physician.

She applied to numerous medical colleges and was rejected by all but one, Geneva Medical College in New York. The faculty, assuming that the all-male student body would never agree to a woman joining their ranks, allowed them to vote on her admission. As a joke, they voted “yes,” and she gained admittance in 1847. Two years later, after facing much resentment and prejudice, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to receive an M.D. degree from an American medical school.

Britain’s magazine, Punch, commented on her achievement by publishing the following rhyme:

Young ladies all, of every clime,
Especially of Britain,
Who wholly occupy your time
In novels or in knitting,

Whose highest skill is but to play,
Sing, dance, or French to clack well,
Reflect on the example, pray,
Of excellent Miss Blackwell!

Blackwell worked in clinics in London and Paris for two years, and studied midwifery at La Maternité where unfortunately she contracted purulent opthalmia causing her to lose the sight in one eye and dashing her dreams of becoming a surgeon.

Not to be discouraged, she returned to America in 1851 and established a medical practice in New York. In 1853 she opened her own dispensary. Her sister Emily, who had also qualified as a doctor, joined her and together with Dr Marie Zakrzewska, they opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children in 1857.

Blackwell made several trips back to England to raise funds and to try to establish a parallel infirmary project there. It was during a trip to England in 1859 that she first met Elizabeth Garrett. Inspired by Blackwell’s drive and fervour, Garrett later became England’s first female medical school graduate and a founder of London’s New Hospital for Women.

During the 1860s and 1870s, Elizabeth Blackwell continued to rally support in Britain for the acceptance of women in medicine. She raised sufficient backing in America to add a women’s medical school to her New York women’s hospital, which opened in November 1868.

The New York infirmary and school continued to grow, but following a rift with Emily, she decided to move back to Britain in 1869 where she continued to campaign for reform and change in the medical profession.

She founded the National Health Society in 1871 which aimed to educate people about the benefits of hygiene and healthy lifestyles. Their motto ‘Prevention is better than Cure’ is a phrase that still rings true and is regularly used by medical professionals and the general public.

In 1874, Blackwell and British physician Sophia Jex-Blake established the London School of Medicine for Women, with the primary goal of preparing women for the licensing exam of Apothecaries Hall. Blackwell was later appointed professor of gynaecology in 1875,at the London School of Medicine for Children – founded by the then Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.

Over the next forty years, Blackwell was involved in a number of reform movements –moral reform, sexual purity, hygiene, and medical education, but also preventative medicine, sanitation, family planning and women’s rights. She published many books and pamphlets on the subjects.

Blackwell had shocked Victorians by urging young ladies to learn more about their bodies and how to care for them. In 1876, she wrote about a forbidden subject, sex education, and titled it Counsel to Parents on the Moral Education of Their Children in Relation to Sex. She submitted it to twelve different London publishers, all of whom recoiled in horror from the subject matter and refused to print it. One publisher, Hatchard and Co., London, did agree to publish it, but when the widow of Bishop Thomas Hatchard, a late senior editor of the firm, read the proofs she was appalled and prevented the book being published. It was finally published in 1879, both in London and New York, with reaction ranging from outrage to wary approval.

Blackwell did not actively practice medicine during the last two decades of her life, but she remained a tireless worker for a score of causes: women’s suffrage, better hygiene, the abolition of prostitution and white slavery, morality in government, and the liberalisation of Victorian prudery, among others. She had battled all her life and her successes had been monumental. She had won the enthusiastic support of some prominent medical figures—and the grudging acceptance of women into medicine. In 1881, there were only 25 female doctors registered in England and Wales but by 1911 there were 495 registered.

Elizabeth Blackwell died in Hastings on 31 May 1910. She was a pioneer, instrumental in many campaigns for reform, launching many innovative health schemes and a tireless worker for health care. It is a fitting tribute that this groundbreaking medical research institute be named after her.

The Elizabeth Blackwell Institute for Health Research, co-funded by the Wellcome Trust, opens today at the University of Bristol. The new health research institute will accelerate the translation of medical research into new treatments and therapies to benefit patients.

Sarah Blackmore

Sarah Blackmore is a Masters Student in History at the University of Bristol.

UPDATE 24/7/13: Title of the post amended. The previous title (“first female doctor in the GMC”) implied Blackwell was the first woman on the GMC, which, is incorrect. The GMC admitted doctors to the register as approved to practice in the UK. Being on the register, and on the GMC itself, are very different and the title has been amended accordingly.

Image credit: Wellcome Library, London
9 Comments leave one →
  1. Lesley Hall permalink
    22 Jul, 2013 2:42 pm

    It’s actually a little misleading to describe Blackwell as ‘the first female doctor in the GMC’. She was the first woman to be entered on the Medical Register set up by the General Medical Council, but it was a long time before any woman doctor was actually appointed to the GMC itself.

    The first woman to be so appointed was Christine Murrell, 1933 , who unfortunately died before she could take her place on the body (a small group of her papers are held in Archives and Manuscripts, Wellcome Library)). Further information on the copious archival material on women in the medical profession in the Wellcome Library is available in this downloadable pdf resources guide: http://wellcomelibrary.org/content/documents/31302/women-in-medicine-archives.pdf

  2. 23 Jul, 2013 7:51 pm

    Reblogged this on Plant Scientist.

  3. Sarah Blackmore permalink
    6 Jan, 2014 10:10 pm

    I would like to point out that whilst there may be discussions surrounding the original title of this blog, the article referred to Elizabeth Blackwell as the first woman to have her name entered in the British General Medical Council’s medical register in 1859, rather than ‘the first female doctor in the GMC’; which is correct information.
    The original title and the subsequent alteration were not part of my original text.

  4. 23 Jan, 2014 8:28 pm

    So amazing to read the reactions of the Victorians bout sex education. In times to come, people will think the same about conservatives stance on gays today.

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