Elizabeth Blackwell Biography (1821-1910)

Anglo, American

Elizabeth Blackwell was born into a family of social activists. The third ofnine children, Blackwell was born in Bristol, England on February 3, 1821. Her parents moved the family to New York City when Elizabeth was 12, and her father immediately became active in the abolitionist movement. Unfortunately, after an 1838 move to Cincinnati, Ohio, the family's luck turned sour. Their previously secure finances failed, and Mr. Blackwell died, leaving his familynearly destitute. His daughters opened a young ladies' boarding school in order to provide for the family.

In 1842, Elizabeth Blackwell moved to Henderson, KY to teach, but she found the climate of racism unacceptable and quickly left after only one year. She went back to Cincinnati, and then on to Asheville, NC, where she again began teaching. Here in Asheville, Blackwell began studying medicine on her own. Shecontinued her private medical studies in Charleston, SC, where she also taught at a girls' school.

Blackwell began seeking a medical school which would allow her entrance. Seventeen rejections later, she sent an application to Geneva Medical College (now Hobart and William Smith Colleges). The myth around her eventual acceptanceinto Geneva Medical College involves the faculty thinking that the idea of awoman applying to medical school was completely preposterous. In fact, theywere so convinced that no woman would ever do such a ridiculous thing, that they believed Blackwell's application to be a joke or a hoax. In the spirit ofgood humor, the faculty went along with the joke by voting "yes" unanimouslywhen her application was presented for vote. Thus was Elizabeth Blackwell'sapplication, neither a joke nor a hoax, accepted for admittance to the GenevaMedical College; the first woman in America ever to attend medical school.

Blackwell endured a lot during her medical studies. The attitudes of her malecolleagues and her male teachers ranged from cold to blatantly derisive. Shewas socially isolated from her all-male peers, and subject to any number ofcruel practical jokes. She showed incredible strength, persistence, and determination, graduating at the top of her class on January 12, 1849. She accepted her diploma from the college president, Benjamin Hale, stating: "Sir, by the help of the Most High, it shall be the effort of my life to shed honor on this diploma."

Blackwell attempted to pursue advanced training in surgery in Paris, but wasspurned by the male medical establishment. Instead, she was assigned to serveas a midwife at a large maternity hospital. During her time there, Blackwelldeveloped purulent conjunctivitis, and became blind in one eye. Due to thishandicap, Blackwell forfeited her plan to study surgery, and left for London.Here she practiced at St. Bartholomew's Hospital until 1851, when she returned to New York.

In New York City, the era's prevailing sexism again thwarted Blackwell's plans, as she was repeatedly denied employment as a physician because she was a woman. Circumventing the male medical establishment, she and her sister Emily(also a physician) worked together to create their own private practice in atenement building. This practice grew to become the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. The staff was entirely composed of women.

Blackwell established a nurses' training program at the infirmary to help supply medical help for the Union Army during the Civil War. Later, in 1868, thetwo Blackwell sisters founded Women's Medical College of the New York Infirmary, to provide medical training for women seeking to become physicians.

In 1869, Blackwell returned to London. She established and ran a large practice, and in 1875 helped to found the London School of Medicine for Women, where she served as chair of gynecology. Blackwell also spent a good deal of timewriting and lecturing on disease prevention and hygiene. Blackwell was the first woman ever listed in the British Medical Register, and was involved in founding the National Health Society. Scorned and ridiculed in the United States, Blackwell was appreciated in England. Blackwell died in Hastings, England, on May 31, 1910.

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