Elizabeth Blackwell

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Elizabeth Blackwell : biography

3 February 1821 – 31 May 1910

Kitty Barry

In 1856, when Blackwell was establishing the New York Infirmary, she adopted Katherine "Kitty" Barry, an Irish orphan from the House of Refuge on Randall’s Island. Diary entries at the time show that she adopted Barry half out of loneliness and a feeling of obligation, and half out of a utilitarian need for domestic help.Elizabeth Blackwell. Letter to Emily Blackwell. 1 Oct 1856. (Blackwell Family Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College) Barry was raised as a half-servant, half-daughter.

Blackwell did provide for Barry’s education. She even instructed Barry in gymnastics as a trial for the theories outlined in her publication, The Laws of Life with Special Reference to the Physical Education of Girls. However, Blackwell never permitted Barry to develop her own interests. She didn’t make an effort to introduced Barry to young men or women of her age. Barry herself was rather shy, awkward, and self-conscious about her slight deafness. Barry followed Blackwell during her many trans-Atlantic moves, during her furious house hunt between 1874 and 1875, during which they moved six times, and finally to Blackwell’s final home, Rock House, a small house off Exmouth Place in Hastings, in 1879.

Barry stayed with Blackwell all her life. After Blackwell’s death, Barry stayed at Rock House, and then moved to Kilmun, where Blackwell was buried. In 1920, she moved in with the Blackwells and took the Blackwell name. On her deathbed, in 1930, Barry called Blackwell her "true love", and requested that her ashes be buried with those of Elizabeth.Blackwell, Alice Stone. Tribute to Kttty Barry. Vineyard Gazette. 19 Jun 1936. (Blackwell Family Papers, Library of Congress)

Private life

Elizabeth Blackwell never married. None of the five Blackwell sisters did. Elizabeth thought courtship games were rather silly early in her life, and prized her independence. When commenting on the young men trying to court her during her time in Kentucky, she said: "…do not imagine I am going to make myself a whole just at present; the fact is I cannot find my other half here, but only about a sixth, which would not do." Even during her time at Geneva Medical College, she rejected advances from a few suitors.

There was one major controversy, however, in Blackwell’s life: Alfred Sachs, a young Jewish man of 26 from Virginia. He was very close with both Kitty Barry and Blackwell, and it was widely believed in 1876 that he was a suitor for Barry, who was 29 at the time. The reality was that Blackwell and Sachs were very close, so much so that Barry felt uncomfortable being around the two of them. Sachs was very interested in Blackwell, then 55 years old. Barry was in love with Sachs, and was mildly jealous of Blackwell.Kitty Barry Blackwell. Letter to Alice Stone Blackwell. 24 March 1877. (Blackwell Family Papers, Library of Congress). Blackwell thought that Sachs lived a life of dissipation and believed that she could reform him. In fact, the majority of her 1878 publication Counsel to Parents on the Moral Education of the Children was based on her conversations with Sachs. Blackwell stopped correspondence with Alfred Sachs after the publication of her book.

Last years and death

Blackwell, in her later years, was still relatively active. In 1895, she published her autobiography, Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women. It was not very successful, selling fewer than 500 volumes. After this publication, Blackwell slowly relinquished her public reform presence, and spent more time travelling. She visited the United States in 1906 and took her first and last automobile ride. Blackwell’s old age was beginning to limit her activities.

In 1907, Blackwell fell down a flight of stairs, and was left almost completely mentally and physically disabled. On 31 May 1910, Blackwell died at her home in Hastings, England after suffering a stroke that paralyzed half her body. Her ashes were buried in the graveyard of St Munn’s Parish Church in Kilmun, Scotland, and obituaries honoring her appeared in publications such as The Lancet and The British Medical Journal.