Elizabeth Blackwell: biography
The British artist Edith Holden, whose Unitarian family were Blackwell’s relatives, was given the middle name “Blackwell” in her honour.
Childhood and family
Elizabeth Blackwell was born in a house on Dickson Street in Bristol, England, to Samuel Blackwell, a sugar refiner and his wife Hannah (Lane) Blackwell. She had two older siblings, Anna and Marian, and would eventually have six younger siblings: Samuel (married Antoinette Brown), Henry (married Lucy Stone), Emily, Sarah, John, and George. Four maiden aunts, Barbara, Ann, Lucy, and Mary, also lived with the Blackwells during Blackwell’s childhood. Blackwell’s earliest memories were of her time living at a house on 1 Wilson Street, off Portland Square, Bristol.
Her childhood at Wilson Street was a happy one. Blackwell especially remembered the positive and loving influence of her father. Samuel Blackwell was somewhat liberal in his attitudes towards, not only child rearing but also religion and social ideologies. For example, rather than beating his children for bad behaviour, Samuel Blackwell recorded their trespasses in a black book. If the offences accumulated, the children might be exiled to the attic during dinner. However, Blackwell’s father was by no means lax in the education of his children. Samuel Blackwell was a Congregationalist and exerted a strong influence over the religious and practical education of his children. He believed that each child should be given the opportunity for unlimited development of his/her talents and gifts. Blackwell had not only a governess but also private tutors to supplement her intellectual development. As a result, she was rather socially isolated from all but her family as she grew up.
Move to America
In 1828, Samuel Blackwell moved his family to Nelson St., next to his refinery, as business picked up. However, in 1830, Bristol became unstable, and as riots began to break out, Samuel decided to move his family to America. Blackwell was eleven years old when the Blackwells sailed for New York in the Cosmo in August 1832. Her father set up the Congress Sugar Refinery in New York City after they settled in. He also joined Samuel Hanson Cox’s congregation, and become somewhat active in reform circles. Abolitionist leaders including William Lloyd Garrison and Theodore Weld paid visits to the Blackwell residence. Elizabeth Blackwell, Diary, 10 May 1836 (Blackwell Family Papers, Library of Congress) Blackwell and the rest of the children adopted their father’s liberal views and, rather ironically, voluntarily gave up sugar in protest of the slave trade. This was perhaps Blackwell’s first taste of social reform. She would grow to love it – attending antislavery fairs and abolitionist meetings throughout the mid to late 1830s. These activities made Blackwell yearn for more economical and intellectual independence.
In 1836, the refinery was burned down in a fire. Despite being rebuilt, Samuel Blackwell’s refinery ran into business problems only a year later. The family economised, dismissed their servants, and moved to Cincinnati, Ohio in 1838 in an attempt to re-establish the business. Part of the reason for the move to Cincinnati was Samuel Blackwell’s interest in cultivating sugar beets, an alternative to the slave-labour intensive sugar cane being produced elsewhere. Three weeks after their move to Cincinnati, however, on 7 August 1838, Blackwell’s father died unexpectedly from biliary fever. He left behind a widow, nine children, and a great deal of debt.
The Blackwells’ financial situation was unfortunate. Pressed by financial need, the sisters Anna, Marian and Elizabeth started a school, The Cincinnati English and French Academy for Young Ladies, which provided instruction in most if not all subjects, and charged for tuition, room, and board. The school was not terribly innovative in its education methods – it was merely a source of income for the Blackwell sisters. Elizabeth Blackwell, Diary, 19–21 December 1838 (Blackwell Family Papers, Library of Congress). Blackwell’s abolition work took a back seat during these years, most likely due to the more conservative pro-slavery attitudes in Cincinnati.