Elizabeth Blackwell: biography
Elizabeth Blackwell (3 February 1821 – 31 May 1910) was the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States, as well as the first woman on the UK Medical Register. She was the first openly identified woman to graduate from medical school, a pioneer in promoting the education of women in medicine in the United States, and a social and moral reformer in both the United States and in England.
Medical career in the United States
Back in New York City, Blackwell opened up her own practice. She was faced with adversity but did manage to get some media support from entities such as the New York Tribune. She had very few patients, a fact Blackwell attributed to the stigma of woman doctors as abortionists. In 1852, she began delivering lectures and published The Laws of Life with Special Reference to the Physical Education of Girls, her first work, a volume about the physical and mental development of girls. Although Elizabeth herself pursued a career and never married or carried a child, this treatise ironically concerned itself with the preparation of young women for motherhood. In 1853, Blackwell established a small dispensary near Tompkins Square. She also took Marie Zakrzewska, a German woman pursuing a medical education, under her wing, serving as her preceptor in her pre-medical studies. In 1857, Dr Marie Zakrzewska, along with Blackwell and her sister Emily, who had also obtained a medical degree, expanded Blackwell’s original dispensary into the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. Women served on the board of trustees, on the executive committee, and as attending physicians. The institution accepted both in and outpatients and served as a nurse’s training facility. The patient load doubled in the second year.
Civil War efforts
When the civil war broke out, the Blackwell sisters aided in nursing efforts. Blackwell sympathized heavily with the North due to her abolitionist roots and even went so far as to say she would have left the country if the North had compromised on the subject of slavery. Elizabeth Blackwell. Letters to Barbara Bodichon. 29 Jan 1859. 25 Nov 1860. 5 June 1861 (Elizabeth Blackwell Collection, Special Collections, Columbia University Library). However, Blackwell did meet with some resistance on the part of the male-dominated United States Sanitary Commission. The male physicians refused to help with the nurse education plan if it involved the Blackwells. Still, the New York Infirmary managed to work with Dorthea Dix to train nurses for the Union effort.
Medical career at home and abroad
Blackwell made several trips back to England to raise funds and to try to establish a parallel infirmary project there. In 1858, under a clause in the Medical Act 1858 that recognized doctors with foreign degrees practising in Britain before 1858, she was able to become the first woman to have her name entered on the General Medical Council’s medical register (1 January 1859). She also became a mentor to Elizabeth Garrett Anderson during this time. By 1866, nearly 7,000 patients were being treated per year at the New York Infirmary, and Blackwell was needed back in the United States. The parallel project fell through, but in 1868, a medical college for women adjunct to the infirmary was established. It incorporated Blackwell’s innovative ideas about medical education – a four-year training period with much more extensive clinical training than previously required.
At this point, a rift occurred between Emily and Elizabeth Blackwell. They both had extremely headstrong personalities, and a power struggle over the management of the infirmary and medical college ensued. Elizabeth, feeling slightly alienated by the United States women’s medical movement, left for England to try to establish medical education for women there. In July 1869, she sailed for England.
In 1874, Blackwell established a women’s medical school in London with Sophia Jex-Blake, who had been a student at the New York Infirmary years earlier. Blackwell had doubts about Jex-Blake and thought that she was dangerous, belligerent, and tactless. Elizabeth Blackwell. Letter to Samuel C. Blackwell. 21 Sep 1874. (Blackwell Family Papers, Library of Congress). Nonetheless, Blackwell became deeply involved with the school, and it opened in 1874 as the London School of Medicine for Women, with the primary goal of preparing women for the licensing exam of Apothecaries Hall. Blackwell vehemently opposed the use of vivisections in the laboratory of the school.