Elizabeth Blackwell


Elizabeth Blackwell: biography

3 February 1821 – 31 May 1910

After the establishment of the school, Blackwell lost much of her authority to Jex-Blake and elected as a lecturer in midwifery. She resigned this position in 1877, officially retiring from her medical career.

While Blackwell viewed medicine as a means for social and moral reform, her student Mary Putnam Jacobi focused on curing disease. At a deeper level of disagreement, Blackwell felt that women would succeed in medicine because of their human female values, but Jacobi believed that women should participate as the equals of men in all medical specialities. Regina Morantz, “Feminism, Professionalism and Germs: The Thought of Mary Putnam Jacobi and Elizabeth Blackwell,” American Quarterly (1982) 34:461-478.

Time in Europe – social and moral reform

After leaving for England in 1869, Blackwell diversified her interests and was active both in social reform and authorship. She co-founded the National Health Society in 1871. She perceived herself as a wealthy gentlewoman who had the leisure to dabble in the improvement and intellectual activities – the income from her American investments supported her. She instead occupied with her social status, and her friend, Barbara Bodichon, helped introduce Blackwell into her circles. She travelled across Europe many times during these years, in England, France, Wales, Switzerland, and Italy.

Her greatest period of reform activity was after her retirement from the medical profession, from 1880-1895. Blackwell was interested in a great number of reform movements – mainly moral reform, sexual purity, hygiene, and medical education, but also preventative medicine, sanitation, eugenics, family planning, women’s rights, associationism, Christian socialism, medical ethics, and antivivisection – none of which ever came to real fruition. She switched back and forth between many different reform organisations, trying to maintain a position of power in each. Blackwell had a lofty, elusive, and ultimately unattainable goal: evangelical moral perfection. All of her reform work was along this thread. She even contributed heavily to the founding of two utopian communities: Starnthwaite and Hadleigh in the 1880s.

She believed that Christian morality ought to play as significant a role as scientific inquiry in medicine and that medical schools ought to instruct students in this fundamental truth. She also was antimaterialist and did not believe in vivisections, inoculation, vaccines, or germ theory, instead of subscribing to more spiritual healing methods. She believed that disease came from moral impurity, not from microbes.

As such, she campaigned heavily against licentiousness, prostitution, and contraceptives, arguing instead for the rhythm method. She campaigned against the Contagious Diseases Acts, arguing that it was a pseudo-legalisation of prostitution. Her 1878 Counsel to Parents on the Moral Education of their Children was an essay on prostitution and marriage arguing against the Contagious Diseases Acts. She was conservative in all senses except that she believed women to have sexual passions equal to those of men, and that men and women were equally responsible for controlling those passions. Others of her time believed women to have little if any sexual passion and placed the responsibility of moral policing squarely on the shoulders of the woman.

Elizabeth Blackwell was the first female doctor in the US

Personal life

Friends and family

Blackwell was well connected, both in the United States and in England. She exchanged letters with Lady Byron about women’s rights issues and became very close friends with Florence Nightingale, with whom she discussed the opening and running a hospital together. Elizabeth Blackwell remained lifelong friends with Barbara Bodichon and met Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1883. She was close with her family and visited her brothers and sisters whenever she could during her travels.

However, Blackwell had a great personality, and was often quite acerbic in her critique of others, especially of other women. Blackwell had a falling out with Florence Nightingale after Nightingale returned from the Crimean war. Nightingale wanted Blackwell to turn her focus to training nurses, and could not see the legitimacy of training female physicians. After that, Blackwell’s comments upon Florence Nightingale’s publications were often highly critical. Kitty Barry Blackwell. Letter to Alice Stone Blackwell. 24 Mar 1877. (Blackwell Family Papers, Library of Congress) She was also highly critical of many of the women’s reform and hospital organisations in which she played no role, calling some of them “quack auspices”.Elizabeth Blackwell. Letter to Emily Blackwell. 23 Jan 1855. (Blackwell Family Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College) Blackwell also did not get along well with her more stubborn sisters Anna and Emily, or with the women physicians, she mentored after they established themselves (Dr Marie Zakrzewska, Sophia Jex-Blake, and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson). Among women at least, Blackwell was very assertive and found it difficult to play a subordinate role.