Influential Women in Medicine: Elizabeth Blackwell

Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States. She graduated from Geneva Medical College in New York in 1849 and later co-founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children.

 

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Originally from Gloucestershire, England, Elizabeth grew up in a large family. Her father had a liberal view of education and believed that all his children, including the girls, should be well educated and so Elizabeth grew up with a governess and private tutors. After her family moved to Cincinnati, Elizabeth became a teacher herself, got involved in local politics and began to advocate for women’s rights.

 

Eventually, Elizabeth grew weary of teaching positions and resolved to save enough money for medical school, around $3,000. She even moved to Philadelphia in hopes of getting into a medical school there, but was unable to find one that would accept her. She was told over and over that her “inferior” female brain wasn’t up to the job, but, on the off chance she would be able to do it, the male physicians didn’t want the competition. One sympathetic physician suggested that she should disguise herself as a man to try to get in.

 

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Image: Source Geneva Medical College, c. 1848

 

Finally, Hobart College in upstate New York, which was then called Geneva Medical College, decided to give her a chance. Rather than putting her through the usual admissions process, the College let the entire student body (150 men) vote on her acceptance with the condition that if one man objected, she would not be let in. They voted unanimously to accept her.

 

Through her studies, she took a particular interest in typhus and wrote her graduating thesis on the topic. In her thesis, she linked physical health with social stability, a sign of her growing interest in activism and reform.

 

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After graduation, she worked as a physician and later established the New York Infirmary for Women and Children and during the Civil War worked with Dorothea Dix to train new nurses for the war. Through the rest of her life she travelled back and forth between the U.S. and Europe, advancing the cause of women’s medical education.

 

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Laurie Breen

Laurie Breen is a freelance writer well-versed in research communications and grant writing. She received her Bachelors Degree in Psychology from Smith College and has worked previously at the University of Queensland's Centre for Clinical Research in Brisbane, Australia. Her favorite conversational topic is "antibiotic-resistant bacteria," making her a big hit at parties.