Saturday, April 29, 2000
F A C T   F I L E

Elizabeth Blackwell
By Illa Vij
Supporters of her crusade

ELIZABETH Blackwell, the first woman doctor in the USA, opened the medical profession to women. She bravely struggled and broke the barriers that did not permit women to enter this profession.

Elizabeth was born in 1821, in Bristol, England. When she was 11 years old, her father, Samuel Blackwell moved to New York. Samuel, a dynamic personality, was dead against slavery and did not conform with the majority in religion. He did not want his daughters to live a cloistered life as most people did. He did his best to give his sons and daughters a good education and help them make a career for themselves. He encouraged reading and told their governess, Miss Major, that she must remember that his daughters were thinking creatures, just as much as his sons.

When Elizabeth was 16 years old there was a slump in her father’s business. Samuel moved the family to Cincinnati where two of his daughters Anna and Marian took up teaching posts in New York. Soon after Samuel died, Elizabeth with Anna and Marian, and their mother started a boarding school. A few years later, Elizabeth moved to Henderson in Kentucky, where she received an offer to open a girl’s school. After a year of success, she moved back to her family and began planning a better future for herself. Looking back years later, she recalled: "The idea of winning a doctor’s degree gradually assumed for me the aspect of a great moral struggle and the moral fight possessed a great attraction for me." After 29 schools rejected her application because she was a woman, she finally gained admission in Geneva College in Geneva. This was possible because an influential doctor of Philadelphia had recommended her. The class numbered 150 boisterous men and Elizabeth’s calm and composed manner soon influenced them. Since her savings had run out, she decided to earn during the long summer vacation. She took up work in the charitable hospital in Philadelphia. She longed to meet her family but she had to earn the following session’s fees. Here she worked with patients of typhus fever and this also became the subject of the medical thesis she wrote later at college.

  On January 23, 1849, Elizabeth graduated and became the first lady doctor in the modern world. The peak had been scaled and she had conquered what had been declared impossible. Fifty years later, the college at Geneva opened its first women’s hostel. Later, an Elizabeth Blackwell award was established by the college, which was to be presented annually to a woman in recognition of her outstanding service to humanity. In 1949, the American Medical Women’s Association established the Elizabeth Blackwell Medal to be given to a woman who had made valuable contributions in promoting the role of women in medicine.

In 1950, Elizabeth met Florence Nightingale and they became the best of friends. After her graduation, Elizabeth travelled to Europe for practical training at various hospitals there. In 1851, she returned to New York. Unfortunately, there she found great resistance from both the men and women. Few patients came to her and hospitals barred her entry to the wards. Prejudice met her everywhere. Her testimonials from London and England meant nothing to the medical authorities at New York. Yet, Elizabeth did not give up and began lecturing on health and hygiene and gradually the Quaker-ladies became interested. A leading American doctor declared that it had taken them 50 years to catch up with Elizabeth’s ideas. Her private practice began picking up but her loneliness could not be beaten. She adopted an Irish girl child named Kitty Barry. It turned out to be a life-long relationship, which brought real joy to both of them. Elizabeth’s younger sister, who had also become a doctor, helped in collecting funds for their hospital which was primarily meant to serve the poor. It was called the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. The hospital was opened on May 12, 1857. Later it was expanded to include a Medical School for women. The date chosen was Florence Nightingale’s birthday. Then Elizabeth left for England where she met Elizabeth Garret, who was greatly inspired by her and became a doctor too.

Elizabeth Blackwell was appointed Professor of Gynaecology at the London School of Medicine. In 1879, Elizabeth and Kitty settled at Rock House, overlooking the English Channel. Elizabeth wrote of her early days, entitled Pioneer Work in the Opening of the Medical Profession to Women. She died in May 1910. In the words of a American colleague, "She had lived to see the river of her life expand into the ocean of a world movement."


Supporters of her crusade

AFTER graduating from Geneva College, Blackwell studied briefly in Paris and then in London, where she became acquainted with that country’s leading literary and scientific figures. She also began lifelong friendships with Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), a self-taught expert in nursing who had not yet achieved fame for her work during the Crimean War, and Anne Isabella Milbanke, the mathematician and heiress known as Lady Byron since her short and unsuccessful marriage to romantic poet Lord George Gordon Byron (1788-1824), who in happier times had affectionately dubbed his wife the "princess of Parallelograms."

Lady Byron learned of Blackwell through mutual friends and the two initiated a correspondence when the young doctor interned at a London hospital. Blackwell wrote to her sister that she had never met a woman with greater scientific interests and knowledge. She greatly admired the older women’s "rare intelligence" and "long experience" and described for her sister an invigorating three-day visit to Byron’s fashionable home in Brighton. There Blackwell met noted Irish author Mrs. Anna Jameson (1794-1860) and flamboyant Shakespearean actress Fanny Kemble (1809-1893). She also conversed with Byron on a variety of topics in a lively manner characteristic of their subsequent correspondence.

Byron and other supporters wanted Blackwell to establish a practice in England based on her interests in preventive medicine, sanitation and moral reform, personal hygiene, and natural remedies like hydrotherapy and fresh-air treatments. Blackwell, however, believed that she would meet with less resistance in America, where medical schools had begun admitting more women. Unfortunately she miscalculated the difficulty of her endeavor. Arriving in New York in August 1851, Blackwell found herself barred from practice in city hospitals and considered comparable to a notorious abortionist, who also identified herself as a "female physician." In 1853 Blackwell opened a small dispensary in one of the city’s tenement districts, where she was later joined, first by her sister, Dr. Emily Blackwell (1826-1910), and then by Dr. Marie Zakrzewska (1829-1902), both recent medical school graduates. The following year, the three women opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children.

Throughout this difficult time in her life, Blackwell kept in touch with Byron and other British friends, some of whom contributed financially to the hospital.