Elizabeth Blackwell


Elizabeth Blackwell : biography

3 February 1821 – 31 May 1910

Blackwell converted to Episcopalianism, probably due to her sister Anna’s influence, in December 1838, becoming an active member of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. However, William Henry Channing’s arrival in 1839 to Cincinnati changed her mind. Channing, a charismatic Unitarian minister, introduced the ideas of transcendentalism to Blackwell, who started attending the Unitarian Church. A conservative backlash from the Cincinnati community ensued, and as a result, the Academy lost many pupils and was abandoned in 1842. Blackwell began teaching private pupils.

Channing’s arrival renewed Blackwell’s interests in education and reform. She worked at intellectual self-improvement: studying art, attending various lectures, writing short stories, and attending various religious services in all denominations (Quaker, Millerite, Jewish). In the early 1840s, she began to articulate thoughts about women’s rights in her diaries and letters, and participated in the Harrison political campaign of 1840.

In 1844, with the help of her sister Anna, Blackwell procured a teaching job that paid $400 per year in Henderson, Kentucky. Although she was pleased with her pupils, she found the accommodations and schoolhouse lacking. What disturbed her most was that this was her first real encounter with the realities of slavery. She ultimately found Henderson to be absurd and boring, the people to be simple and petty, and the whole situation, all in all intolerable. She returned to Cincinnati only half a year later, resolved to find a more stimulating means of spending her life.


Two institutions honour Elizabeth Blackwell as an alumna:

  • Hobart and William Smith Colleges, the current name of Geneva College, the founding institution of Geneva Medical College
  • State University of New York (SUNY) at Syracuse, which acquired Geneva Medical College in 1950 and renamed it "State University of New York Upstate Medical University" in 1999.

Since 1949, the American Medical Women’s Association has awarded the Elizabeth Blackwell Medal annually to a woman physician. Hobart and William Smith Colleges awards an annual Elizabeth Blackwell Award to women who have demonstrated "outstanding service to humankind."


Decision to enter medicine

The idea to pursue medicine was first planted in Blackwell’s head by a friend in Cincinnati who was dying of a painful disease (possibly uterine cancer). This friend expressed the opinion that a female physician would have made her treatment much more comfortable. Blackwell also felt that women would be better doctors because of their motherly instincts. At first, Blackwell was repulsed by the idea of a medical career. At the time, she "hated everything connected with the body, and could not bear the sight of a medical book". Another influence on her decision to pursue medicine was the connotation of "female physician" at the time. Abortionists were known as "female physicians", a name Blackwell found degrading to what a female physician could potentially achieve. Last but not least, part of Blackwell’s decision to become a doctor was due to the fact that she yearned to live an unattached life, independent of a man and the chains of matrimony.

Blackwell’s decision to study medicine was a rather arbitrary one. It was made before she realized just how difficult it would be to overcome the patriarchal barriers to her goal. However, the difficulty only cemented her resolve. In 1845, Blackwell knew that she would one day obtain a medical degree, but she did not yet know where it would be, or how she would get the money to pay for it.

Pursuit of medical education

Once again, through her sister Anna, Blackwell procured a job, this time teaching music at an academy in Asheville, North Carolina, with the goal of saving up the $3000 necessary for her medical school expenses. In Asheville Blackwell lodged with a Reverend John Dickson, who happened to have been a physician before he became a clergyman. Dickson approved of Blackwell’s career aspirations, and allowed her to use the medical books in his library to study. During this time, Blackwell soothed her own doubts about her choice and her loneliness with deep religious contemplation. She also renewed her antislavery interests – starting a slave Sunday school that was not ultimately successful.