This spotlight has been a long time coming: the first woman in America to earn a medical degree!
Elizabeth Blackwell, MD
Most notable for the fact of being the first woman in America to earn her medical degree, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell is additionally well known for her establishment of the New York Infirmary. This practice offered a solution to one of the many issues facing women in medicine during this era. The New York Infirmary allowed women physicians to practice and expand on their skills at a time when they were normally rejected from internships elsewhere.
Elizabeth was born in England but moved with her family to America when she was 11. Her father wanted to help defeat slavery and this passion for human rights carried over into his children, all eventually campaigning for women’s rights and supporting the anti-slavery movement.
As stated by Elizabeth herself, in her book Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women (published 1821), she was initially repelled by the thought of studying medicine. Finding ‘disgust’ with the physical body, she turned to teaching as it was thought to be a more suitable profession for a woman. It was only after her close friend was dying that she turned to medicine. This friend had stated that her suffering could have been spared if her doctor had been a woman.
Many physicians, who were also family friends, told her to become a physician would be impossible. It would be too expensive and the education wasn’t available to women. Encouraged by the challenge, Elizabeth convinced two physician family fiends to let her read medicine with them for a year. She then applied to multiple medical schools, eventually being accepted by Geneva Medical College in New York. The all-male student body was asked to vote on her admittance and, as a joke, they voted ‘yes’ despite their actual disinclination.
Graduating from medical school two years later, as the first women to receive and MD, Dr. Blackwell practiced medicine in London and Paris. She studied midwifery as well. Eventually establishing a practice in New York City, she had to shut down due to lack of patients. Other practices refused her so in 1853, she and a friend opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children.
This clinic provided training for women doctors and medical care for the underprivileged.
Her health began to decline and while still working towards reform, she gave up practicing medicine in the late 1870’s. She would pass away in 1910.