January 23, 1849: Elizabeth Blackwell becomes first woman MD in America

Elizabeth Blackwell was initially repelled by the idea of studying medicine. She said she had “hated everything connected with the body, and could not bear the sight of a medical book… the very thought of dwelling on the physical structure of the body and its various ailments filled me with disgust.”

BlackwellInstead she went into teaching, then considered more suitable for a woman. It was only after a close friend who was dying confided that she would have been spared her worst suffering if her physician had been a woman that she set out to become a doctor..

Blackwell had no idea how to become a physician, so she consulted with several physicians known by her family. They told her it was a fine idea, but impossible; it was too expensive, and such education was not available to women. Yet Blackwell reasoned that if the idea were a good one, there must be some way to do it, and she was attracted by the challenge. She convinced two physician friends to let her read medicine with them for a year, and applied to all the medical schools in New York and Philadelphia. None would admit her.

She applied to twelve more schools. None would admit her, until the faculty of the Geneva Medical College (now Hobart and William Smith Colleges) in western New York, assuming that the all-male student body would never agree to a woman joining their ranks, allowed them to vote on her admission. As a joke, the students unanimously voted “yes,” and she gained admittance.

Two years later, in 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell graduated at the head of her class and became the first woman to receive an M.D. degree from an American medical school. She worked in clinics in London and Paris for two years. She studied midwifery at La Maternit√©, but somehow she contracted “purulent opthalmia” from a young patient and lost sight in one eye.

Blackwell returned to New York City, giving up her dream of becoming a surgeon. She set up a practice in New York, but had few patients and few opportunities for intellectual exchange with other physicians and missed “the means of increasing medical knowledge which dispensary practice affords.”

She applied for a job as physician at the women’s department of a large city dispensary, but was refused. In 1853, with the help of friends, she opened her own dispensary in a single rented room, seeing patients three afternoons a week. The dispensary was incorporated in 1854 and moved to a small house she bought on 15th Street. Her sister, Dr. Emily Blackwell, joined her and, together with Dr. Marie Zakrzewska, they opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children at 64 Bleecker Street in 1857. This institution and its medical college for women (opened 1867) provided training and experience for women doctors and medical care for the poor.

The hospital continues to this day as the Lower Manhattan Hospital, one of the main campuses of the New York Presbyterian Hospital.

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