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#WCW: How Elizabeth Blackwell became the first female doctor in the US


Born on February 3, 1821, Elizabeth Blackwell was a British-born physician and the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States. She was also the first woman on the UK Medical Register. Below is a summary of her story culled from Wikipedia.

Born in a house on Dicksons Street in Bristol, Gloucestershire, England, to Samuel Blackwell, a sugar refiner, and his wife Hannah Blackwell. She had two older siblings, Anna and Marian, and would eventually have six younger siblings. Her earliest memories were of her time living at a house on 1 Wilson Street, off Portland Square, Bristol.

Her father Samuel Blackwell was a peculiar man. For example, rather than beating his children for bad behavior, Barbara Blackwell recorded their trespasses in a black book. If the offences accumulated, the children might be exiled to the attic during dinner.

He believed that each child, including his girls, should be given the opportunity for unlimited development of their talents and gifts. Elizabeth had not only a governess, but also private tutors to supplement her intellectual development.

The Blackwells’ financial situation was unfortunate. Pressed by financial need, the sisters Anna, Marian and Elizabeth started a school, The Cincinnati English and French Academy for Young Ladies, which provided instruction in most if not all subjects, and charged for tuition, room and board.

William Henry Channing’s arrival in 1839 to Cincinnati drew her to the Unitarian Church. A conservative backlash from the Cincinnati community ensued, and as a result, the academy lost many pupils and was abandoned in 1842. Blackwell began teaching private pupils.

In 1844, with the help of her sister Anna, Blackwell procured a teaching job that paid $400 per year in Henderson, Kentucky.

Although she was pleased with her class, what disturbed her most was that this was her first real encounter with the realities of slavery. “Kind as the people were to me personally, the sense of justice was continually outraged; and at the end of the first term of engagement I resigned the situation,” she said.

She returned to Cincinnati only half a year later, resolved to find a more stimulating means of spending her life.

Through her sister Anna Blackwell, she procured a job teaching music at an academy in Asheville, North Carolina, with the goal of saving up the $3,000 necessary for her medical school expenses.

In Asheville, she lodged with the respected Reverend John Dickson, who happened to have been a physician before he became a clergyman. Dickson approved of her career aspirations, and allowed her to use the medical books in his library to study.

Speaking on her medical ambitions, she said: “My mind is fully made up. I have not the slightest hesitation on the subject; the thorough study of medicine, I am quite resolved to go through with.

“The horrors and disgusts I have no doubt of vanquishing. I have overcome stronger distastes than any that now remain, and feel fully equal to the contest.

“As to the opinion of people, I don’t care one straw personally; though I take so much pains, as a matter of policy, to propitiate it, and shall always strive to do so; for I see continually how the highest good is eclipsed by the violent or disagreeable forms which contain it.”

She attempted to get her foot in the door at any medical school in Philadelphia but 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”.

In October, 1847, Blackwell was accepted as a medical student by Hobart College, then called Geneva Medical 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 a 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 voted unanimously to accept her.

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

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