Elizabeth Blackwell

Mary Stone | July 4, 2023


Elizabeth Blackwell (February 3, 1821 – May 31, 1910) was the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States and to be included in the UK Medical Register.

She was born in Bristol to Samuel and Hannah Blackwell. She had two older sisters, Anna and Marian, and six younger siblings, Samuel, Henry, Emily, Ellen, Howard, and George. While Elizabeth was young, her aunts, Barbara, Ann, Lucy, and Mary, also lived with their family. Elizabeth’s first memories are of the house at 1 Wilson Street.

Her childhood was a happy one, Elizabeth particularly remembering the positive influence of her father. He was quite liberal in his upbringing, religion, and social matters; for example, he did not punish children’s misdeeds with a whipping, but recorded them in a black book, and if many infractions accumulated there, the child was sent to the attic for dinner time. However, that does not mean that he did not raise the children well. Elizabeth had both a governess and private teachers for better intellectual development, but in the end she was socially isolated from everyone but her family.

In 1828 the family moved to Nelson Street, and in 1830, when riots began to break out in Bristol, Samuel decided to move with his family to America. In August 1832 the family arrived in America on the Cosmo. The father became active in reformist circles, with abolitionist leaders such as William Lloyd Garrison visiting their home. The family embraced his liberal views and refused to give up sugar in protest of slavery, although Blackwell himself was a sugar producer. Elizabeth grew up attending anti-slavery fairs and demonstrations, which led to her greater intellectual and economic independence.

In 1836 their factory burned down. Despite recovery, it was not possible to return to business until a year later. The family saved money, gave up servants, and moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1838 in an attempt to rebuild their business. One of the reasons for moving to Cincinnati was Samuel’s interest in growing sugar beets, an alternative to the slave labor of growing sugar cane. Three weeks after their move, on August 7, 1838, the elder Blackwell died unexpectedly of gall fever. He left behind a widow, nine children, and many debts.

Because of financial need, Anna, Maryann, and Elizabeth opened a school, The Cincinnati English and French Academy for Young Ladies. It was not particularly innovative, for it was simply a source of funds for the sisters. The struggle against slavery receded into the background during these years, probably in part because of the more conservative views of the issue in Cincinnati.

Probably influenced by her sister Anna, Elizabeth became an active member of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in December 1838. However, a visit from William Henry Channing in 1839 caused her to change her views and Elizabeth began attending the Unitarian Church. Cincinnati’s conservative community reacted negatively and, as a consequence, the Academy lost many students and was abandoned in 1842. Blackwell began giving private lessons.

Channing’s visit sparked Elizabeth’s new interests in education and reform. She worked on intellectual self-improvement: she studied art, attended various lectures, wrote stories, and participated in various religious services of all denominations (Quakers, Millerites, Jews). In the early 1840s she began to express thoughts about women’s rights in her diaries and letters, and she participated in Harrison’s 1840 political campaign.

In 1844, with the help of her sister Anna Blackwell, she obtained a teaching job at a salary of $400 a year in Henderson, Kentucky. Although she was satisfied with her students, the housing and school did not suit her, besides, she encountered the realities of slavery for the first time, and eventually returned after six months to Cincinnati, determined to spend her life on something less petty and boring.

The thought of getting a medical degree first crossed Elizabeth’s mind after a friend of hers died of a disease. This friend said that a woman could probably make the healing process more comfortable, and Elizabeth herself thought that women could be good doctors because of their maternal instincts. She initially rejected the idea because she hated everything to do with the body and could not even look at medical books. Another phenomenon that influenced her decision was the connotation to the words “woman doctor” – she was actually saying that the maximum a woman could achieve in this field concerned performing abortions. In addition, it was important to Elizabeth to live alone, independent of male and matrimonial bonds.

Elizabeth’s decision to study medicine was rather spontaneous, made before she realized how difficult it would be to overcome all the patriarchal barriers, but these difficulties only strengthened her resolve. In 1845, Blackwell decided one day to pursue a doctorate in medicine, though she did not yet know where it would happen or how she would pay for it.

Elizabeth’s ambition was approved by a priest who happened to be a former doctor. In order to save $3,000, she, again with the help of her sister, took a job teaching music. During the same period, she again began to attend anti-slavery meetings.

After moving to Reverend Dixon’s brother’s house due to Dixon’s school closing and finding a new job, she tried sending out letters about the possibility of attending medical school, but received no favorable responses. In 1847 Elizabeth left Charleston, making it her goal to attend any medical school in Philadelphia, asking for it personally. Here she began to take lessons from Dr. William Sr., who in turn took lessons from Jonathan Allen, and tried to secure admission to either school. Most doctors advised her either to go to Paris to study, or to disguise herself as a man in order to be able to study, since she was, firstly, a woman and therefore intellectually handicapped, and secondly, if she proved to be at her best, she would not be allowed to study, for fear of competition. Desperate, Elizabeth applied to twelve “country schools,” and in October 1847 she was admitted to the Geneva Medical College. It happened almost by chance: the dean refused to make the decision personally, and put the question to a vote among 150 students with the proviso that one vote against would be enough for rejection. The students, however, decided it was such a funny joke, and so voted all in favor.

When Elizabeth first arrived at the college, she was perplexed, for she knew no one and nothing. However, she had a strong influence on the group; whereas previously the lecture hall had been such a hubbub that the lecture was barely audible, now the students sat and listened quietly.

Dr. James Webster, reading an anatomy course, getting as far as the lectures on reproduction, asked Elizabeth to leave, arguing that it was all too vulgar for her delicate mind, but Elizabeth’s response not only allowed her to stay, but raised the profile of what were considered indecent lectures. Blackwell was supported by faculty and students alike, but she still experienced social isolation and rejected suitors and friends, preferring to isolate herself.

On January 23, 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to attain the degree of Doctor of Medicine in the United States. The local press reported her graduation favorably, and when the dean, Dr. Charles Lee, conferred her degree, he stood and bowed to Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s thesis was related to typhoid, and was based on the clinical practice she had received.

In April 1849 she decided to continue her studies in Europe, visited several hospitals in Great Britain, and went to Paris. As in America, she received many rejections because of her sex. In June she was admitted to the “lying-in” hospital La Maternité on condition that she be considered a midwife rather than a doctor; at the end of the year Paul Dubois said she would be the best midwife in the United States, among both women and men.

On November 4, 1849, while treating a child with neonatal ophthalmia, some contaminated fluid splashed into her eye. The illness caused her to lose sight in her left eye and, consequently, all hope of becoming a surgeon. After a period of recovery, she entered St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London in 1850, regularly attending lectures by James Paget. There she made a good impression, although she met with some resistance when she tried to go around the wards.

In 1851 Blackwell decided to return to the United States to pursue a career. Prejudice against women in medicine was not as strong, and she hoped to establish her own practice.

Back in New York, Blackwell opened her own practice. She ran into trouble, but she still managed to get some support from the media, such as the New York Tribune. She had very few patients because of a prejudice against female doctors as only capable of performing abortions. In 1852 she began lecturing and published The Laws of Life with Special Reference to the Physical Education of Girls, her first work on the physical and mental development of girls. Although Elizabeth herself had a career and never married or had a child, this treatise was concerned with preparing young women for motherhood.

In 1853 Blackwell established a small dispensary near Tompkins Square. She also hired Marie Zakrevska, who was receiving a German medical degree, and acted as her mentor. In 1857, Marie and Elizabeth and her sister Emily, who also received a doctorate in medicine, expanded the dispensary into the Hospital for Indigent Women and Children of New York. The women served on the Board of Trustees, on the Executive Committee, and as attending physicians. The institution admitted outpatients and served as a training center for nurses. In the second year, the patient flow doubled.

When the Civil War broke out in the United States, the Blackwell Sisters helped the wounded. Elizabeth was fervently sympathetic to the North, and even went so far as to say that she would have left the country if the North had compromised on slavery. However, the nurses met with some resistance from the United States Sanitary Commission: male doctors refused to help with a plan to educate nurses if the Blackwells were involved. The hospital did, however, participate in nursing education by partnering with Dorothea Dix.

Elizabeth traveled to England several times to raise funds, attempting to establish another infirmary there. In 1858, under the 1858 Medical Act, which recognized doctors with foreign degrees practicing in Great Britain before 1858, she was able to become the first woman whose name entered the General Medical Council’s medical register (January 1, 1859). She also became a mentor to Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. By 1866 nearly 7,000 patients were being treated at New York Hospital, and Blackwell needed to return to the United States. The parallel project failed, but in 1868 a medical college for women was established in addition to the infirmary. It practiced Blackwell’s innovative ideas about medical education–a four-year period of study with much more extensive clinical training than previously required.

There was a quarrel between Emily and Elizabeth Blackwell during this period. They were both very stubborn, and a power struggle took place over the administration of the hospital and college. Elizabeth, feeling somewhat alienated from the medical women’s movement in the United States, left for England in July 1869 to try to establish medical education for women there.

In 1874 Blackwell worked with Sophia Jax-Blake, formerly of New York Hospital, to establish a medical school for women in London. Blackwell found Jax-Blake dangerous, aggressive, and tactless, but in 1874 she succeeded in opening the London School of Medicine for Women, whose main purpose was to prepare for the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries examination. Blackwell was vehemently opposed to the use of vivisection in the school laboratory.

After the establishment of the school, Blackwell was elected lecturer in obstetrics; she resigned that position in 1877, officially ending her medical career.

From 1869 Blackwell lived primarily on investment income in America, taking an interest in social reform and becoming an active author. In 1871 she founded the National Health Society. She traveled frequently to England, France, Wales, Switzerland, and Italy.

Her greatest activity came in the period following her retirement from medicine, from 1880-1895. Blackwell was interested in many reform movements – moral reform, sexual purity, hygiene and medical education, preventive medicine, sanitation, eugenics, family planning, women’s rights, associationism, Christian socialism, medical ethics and anti-vivisectionism – none of which she was deeply involved in. She joined various organizations and tried to maintain influence in each. Blackwell had a lofty, and ultimately unattainable, goal: evangelical moral excellence; all reforms coalesced around this theme. She even contributed greatly to the creation of two utopian congregations, Starnthwaite and Hadleigh, in 1880.

She believed that Christian morality should play a major role in scientific research in medicine, and medical school should teach students this basic truth. She was also anti-materialist and did not believe in vivisection, inoculations, vaccines, and germ theory, preferring more spiritual therapies. She believed that illness was caused by moral problems, not germs.

She waged a major campaign against promiscuity, prostitution and contraception, recommending the cycle method instead. She opposed the Contagious Diseases Acts, arguing that it was a pseudo-legalization of prostitution. In 1878 she wrote Counsel to Parents on the Moral Education of their Children, an essay on prostitution and marriage, arguing against the Contagious Diseases Acts. She was conservative in every sense except that she believed in the sexual passion of women and the responsibility of both parties to control those passions.


  1. Блэкуэлл, Элизабет
  2. Elizabeth Blackwell
  3. ^ a b c d e f Boyd, Julia (2013). The Excellent Doctor Blackwell: The Life of the First Woman Physician. Thistle Publishing. ISBN 9781909609785.
  4. ^ a b Blackwell, Elizabeth (February 1849). “Ship Fever. An Inaugural Thesis, submitted for the degree of M. D., at Geneva Medical College, Jan. 1849”. Buffalo Medical Journal and Monthly Review. 4 (9): 523–531. PMC 7895029. PMID 35374372.
  5. 1 2 Ogilvie M. B. The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science (англ.): Pioneering Lives From Ancient Times to the Mid-20th Century — Routledge, 2003. — Vol. 1. — P. 136—137. — 798 p. — ISBN 978-1-135-96342-2
  6. 1 2 Elizabeth Blackwell // Encyclopædia Britannica (англ.)
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 Sahli, Nancy Ann. Elizabeth Blackwell, M.D., (1821-1910): a biography (англ.). — New York: Arno Press, 1982. — ISBN 0-405-14106-8.
  8. ^ (EN) Lancet Obituary of Elizabeth Blackwell, su archive.org, 11 giugno 1910. URL consultato l’11 giugno 2021.
  9. ^ Trad: “Il lavoro pionieristico nell’apertura della professione medica alle donne”
  10. a b c d e f g h i j et k (en) Nancy Ann Sahli, Elizabeth Blackwell, M.D., (1871-1910) : a biography, New York, Arno Press, 1982, 468 p. (ISBN 0-405-14106-8)
  11. a b c d e f g et h Blackwell, Elizabeth, and Millicent Garrett Fawcett. Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1914. Print.
  12. Elizabeth Blackwell, journal intime, 10 mai 1836 (Blackwell Family Papers, Library of Congress)
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