Elizabeth Blackwell

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Elizabeth Blackwell : biography

3 February 1821 – 31 May 1910

Dickson’s school closed down soon after, and Blackwell moved to the residence of Reverend Dickson’s brother, Samuel Henry Dickson, a prominent Charleston physician. She started teaching in 1846 at a boarding school in Charleston run by a Mrs. Du Pré. With the help of Reverend Dickson’s brother, Blackwell inquired into the possibility of medical study via letters, with no favorable responses. In 1847, Blackwell left Charleston for Philadelphia and New York, with the aim of personally investigating the opportunities for medical study. Blackwell’s greatest wish was to be accepted into one of the Philadelphia medical schools.

Upon reaching Philadelphia, Blackwell boarded with Dr. William Elder, and studied anatomy privately with Dr. Jonathan M. Allen as she attempted to get her foot in the door at any medical school in Philadelphia. She was met with resistance almost everywhere. Most physicians recommended that she either go to Paris to study, or that she take up a disguise as a man to study medicine. The main reasons offered for her rejection were that 1) she was a woman and therefore intellectually inferior, and 2) she might actually prove equal to the task, prove to be competition, and that she could not expect them to "furnish [her] with a stick to break our heads with". Out of desperation, she applied to twelve "country schools".

Medical education in the United States

In October 1847, Blackwell was accepted as a medical student by Geneva Medical College, now Hobart College, located in upstate New York. Her acceptance was a near-accident. The dean and faculty, usually responsible for evaluating an applicant for matriculation, were not able to make a decision due to the special nature of Blackwell’s case. They put the issue up to vote by the 150 male students of the class with the stipulation that if one student objected, Blackwell would be turned away. The young men thought this request was so ludicrous that they believed it to be a joke, and responding accordingly, voted unanimously to accept her.Smith, Stephen. Letter. The Medical Co-education of the Sexes. New York Church Union. 1892.

When Blackwell arrived to the college, she was rather bewildered. Nothing was familiar – the surroundings, the students, the faculty. She did not even know where to get her books and was probably too shy to ask. However, she soon found her footing. Blackwell had an enormous impact on the class. Her presence turned a group of boisterous young men into well-behaved gentlemen. Whereas before, there was so much confusion and chaos in the lecture hall that the lecture itself was barely audible, with Blackwell’s arrival, the male students sat quietly and listened attentively to lecture.

When Dr. James Webster, the anatomy professor, got to the reproduction section of his lectures, he asked Blackwell to absent herself, arguing that it would be too vulgar for her delicate mind. Blackwell’s eloquent response not only made Webster admit her to the lecture, but also elevated the previously obscene and vulgar nature of the lectures. Blackwell received encouragement from both professors and students. However, she experienced a lot of isolation as well. She was looked upon as an oddity by the townspeople of Geneva. She also rejected suitors and friends alike, preferring to isolate herself.

In the summer between her two terms at Geneva, she returned to Philadelphia, stayed with Dr. Elder, and applied for medical positions in the area to gain clinical experience. The Guardians of the Poor, the city commission that ran Blockley Almshouse, granted her permission to work there, albeit not without some struggle. Blackwell slowly gained acceptance at Blockley, although some young resident physicians still would walk out and refuse to assist her in diagnosing and treating her patients. During her time here, Blackwell gained valuable clinical experience, but was appalled by the syphilitic ward and those afflicted with typhus. Her graduating thesis at Geneva Medical College ended up being on the topic of typhus. The conclusion of this thesis linked physical health with socio-moral stability – a link that foreshadows her later reform work.

On 23 January 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to achieve a medical degree in the United States. The local press reported her graduation favorably, and when the dean, Dr. Charles Lee, conferred her degree, he stood up and bowed to her.

Medical education in Europe

In April 1849, Blackwell made the decision to continue her studies in Europe. She visited a few hospitals in England, and then headed to Paris. Just like in America, she was rejected from many hospitals due to her gender. In June, Blackwell enrolled at La Maternité; a "lying-in" hospital, under the condition that she would be treated as a student midwife, not a physician. She made the acquaintance of Dr. Hippolyte Blot, a young resident physician at La Maternité. She gained much medical experience through his mentorship and training. By the end of the year, Paul Dubois, the foremost obstetrician in his day, had voiced his opinion that she would make the best obstetrician in the United States, male or female.

On 4 November 1849, when Blackwell was treating an infant with ophthalmia neonatorum, she spurted some contaminated solution into her own eye accidentally, and contracted the infection. She lost sight in her left eye and thus lost all hope of becoming a surgeon. After a period of recovery, she enrolled at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London in 1850. She regularly attended James Paget’s lectures. She made a good impression there, although she did meet some opposition when she tried to observe the wards.

In 1851, Blackwell decided to return to the United States to pursue her career. The prejudice against women in medicine was not as strong there, and she returned with the hope of establishing her own practice.