Celebration Edition #417:
Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women: Autobiographical Sketches
By Elizabeth Blackwell, 1821-1910.
London and New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1895.
Elizabeth Blackwell (3 February 1821 – 31 May 1910), born in Britain, was the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States, and the first woman to be listed in the UK Medical Register. Elizabeth's father, Samuel Blackwell, held liberal attitudes towards religion, supported the anti-slavery movement, and believed strongly that both boys and girls should receive a practical education with the opportunity to develop their personal talents. Sadly, Samuel Blackwell died unexpectedly on 7 August 1838, leaving his large family in poor financial circumstances.
Elizabeth and her sisters turned to teaching to support themselves. Over time, Elizabeth developed a conviction that she should become a medical doctor, overcoming her stated "natural repugnance to the medical line of life" and determined to succeed even though "the general sentiment of the physicians is strongly opposed to a woman's intruding herself into the profession." That she succeeded in achieving her goal is truly astounding -- and her autobiography is a fascinating account of her experiences, and gives a strong sense of her personality and motivations.
"I felt that I was severing the usual ties of life, and preparing to act against my strongest natural inclinations. But a force stronger than myself then and afterwards seemed to lead me on; a purpose was before me which I must inevitably seek to accomplish. "
In October 1847, Blackwell was accepted as a medical student by Hobart College, then called Geneva Medical College, in upstate New York. She also gained clinical experience at the Blockley Almshouse in Philadelphia. It was not an easy experience, but Blackwell triumphed, in part through her unyieldingly polite and professional behavior. Her graduating thesis at Geneva Medical College dealt with typhus and noted the importance of physical health for moral and social well-being – an idea that she would develop in her later reform work. On January 23, 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to achieve a medical degree in the United States. The graduation ceremonies revealed the extent to which she had won respect: Dr. Charles Lee, the dean, stood up and bowed to her as he conferred her degree, and the local press reported favourably on the event.
Nonetheless, in April 1849, Blackwell left the United States of America for Europe. She enrolled at La Maternité in Paris as a student midwife, since they would not agree to admit her as a physician. She gained tremendous experience in female diseases during her stay. Unfortunately, she also contracted a horrific infection while treating a case of ophthalmia neonatorum, eventually losing the sight in her left eye, and with it all hope of becoming a surgeon. She also trained at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London in 1850.
Blackwell chose to return to America to establish her own medical practice. With support in part from the Society of Friends (Quakers) she formed an independent dispensary in New York in 1953. The institution she established eventually became The New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children and is now the Lower Manhattan Hospital.
"The difficulties and trials encountered at this early period were severe. Ill-natured gossip, as well as insolent anonymous letters, came to me. Although I have never met with any serious difficulties in attending to my practice at all hours of the night, yet unpleasant annoyances from unprincipled men were not infrequent. … I am glad I, and not another, have to bear this pioneer work. I understand now why this life has never been lived before. It is hard, with no support but a high purpose, to live against every species of social opposition. . . ."
In 1869 she finished her early pioneer work in America and returned to England. There she was active in a variety of social reform movements, co-founded the National Health Society, and campaigned against the Contagious Diseases Acts as a semi-legalization of prostitution. Her essay, ''Counsel to Parents on the Moral Education of their Children'' (1878) discussed prostitution and marriage, and argued that women as well as men experienced sexual feelings and were equally responsible for their control. Her autobiography, "Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women" appeared in 1895. Elizabeth died on 31 May 1910, at her home in Hastings, Sussex, and her ashes were buried in the graveyard of St Munn's Parish Church, Kilmun, Scotland.
Her autobiography is well worth reading, and I hope you will enjoy it.
Mary Mark Ockerbloom
Editor, A Celebration of Women Writers