Birth: February 3, 1821
Death: May 31, 1910
First woman awarded an MD in the United States
Founded New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children
Social activist and education reformer
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
The first woman awarded a doctorate of medicine degree didn’t start out with a desire to study medicine. Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell stated that the very thought of dwelling on the physical structure of the body and its various ailments filled her with disgust. She only thought of becoming a doctor as a close friend, who was dying, stated that her treatment would have been better if she had been treated by a woman doctor.
Applying to many medical colleges, Blackwell was denied entry due solely to her gender. The faculty at Geneva Medical College was unsure of what to do with Blackwell’s application and decided to allow their students to vote on her acceptance. It is said that the students at the school felt it was a joke and unanimously agreed to her admittance.
She received her medical degree on January 23, 1849 and traveled to Europe to continue her studies. While practicing as a student midwife she contracted “purulent ophthalmia” and lost the site in one eye. No longer being able to pursue a career as a surgeon she returned to New York and in 1851 established her own practice. With help she opened her own dispensary in 1853 which was incorporated and enlarged a year later. With the help of her sister Dr. Emily Blackwell and Dr. Marie Zakrzewska she opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children which added a medical college for women in 1867. Not only did the institute provide medical care for the poor but it was a location for women doctors to train and gain experience.
Not long after founding the school Blackwell returned to her home country of England and became the first female listed on the General Medical Council’s medical register in 1859, using a loophole in the law recognizing the credentials of doctors from other countries to become the first woman listed in this registry. She opened her own practice and helped found the London School of Medicine for Women where she became a lecturer in midwifery. Retiring from medicine in 1887 she continued to be a social activist and education reformer until her death in 1910.
Written by Angela Goad