In early 19th century America, women were not known to have practised medicine. One woman who brought about revolutionary change here by becoming the first woman to be awarded a medical degree was Elizabeth Blackwell. She was awarded a medical degree on 23 January 1849.
Blackwell was born in Bristol, England, to Samuel Blackwell, a sugar refiner by profession, and Hannah Blackwell. Her father played an important part in her unusual childhood. Being a Congregationalist, he had a liberal attitude towards religion and society. Samuel Blackwell presided over the education of all of his nine children, attaching priority to the practical aspects of learning, theology and development of talents and skills for young children. Blackwell therefore, had a governess and private tutors throughout her childhood, spending most of it in isolation.
After her family moved to America in 1830 due to social unrest caused by the 1830 riots in Bristol, Blackwell began to participate in what was to be one of her most devoted and long-standing passion: social reform. As a child she held liberal views as well, giving up sugar in protest of the slave trade, attending antislavery fairs and abolitionist meetings, and yearning for more economic and intellectual development.
Samuel Blackwell had established the Congress Sugar Refinery in New York City, where the family settled. He also joined the congregation of the American abolitionist Samuel Hanson Cox, with leading figures of the reform social circle from William Lloyd Garrison to Theodore Weld regularly making appearances at his house. The refinery completely burned down in a fire in 1836, and although it was rebuilt, first in New York and then in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1836, where the family moved due to financial hardship, the refinery never returned to its initial days of success. Blackwell’s father was fascinated by the sugar beet trade, a recourse to the popular but slave-labour dominating sugar cane production that was so widely active in Cincinnati. Three weeks after moving house, Samuel Blackwell died of fever, leaving behind a young family and mountains of debt.
During her younger years, Elizabeth, and her elder sisters, Anna and Marian, opened a school, The Cincinnati English and French Academy for Young Ladies, which taught all subjects normally available in schools of the time and also provided tuition, room and boarding, for a nominal fee. The school was to act as as a means to stipulate income for the three sisters, and the time saw Blackwell doing very little work in abolitionism, perceived to be because of the pro-slavery stance in social circles of the region.
Transcendentalism had garnered much attention in Eastern America during the 1830s and 1840s, acting as a benchmark for protests against the intellectual nature of education at Harvard University, the doctrine of the Unitarian church, and the culture and society active in the country. William Henry Channing was an influential Unitarian clergyman of the time and his meeting with Blackwell convinced her to change her faith to Unitarianism. Retaliation at this decision, from the conservative society she was living in, made many children leave the Academy and eventually lead to its abandonment in 1842.
After Channing entered Blackwell’s life, her educational and social reform pursuits got reinvigorated, and she began working at gaining more intellectual superiority, studying art, attending lectures and religious services of various faiths, and writing short stories. The early 1840s saw her take part in the Harrison political campaign and in 1844 she secured a job in teaching in Henderson, Kentucky, with an annual income of $400. Despite being fond of her pupils at the school, Blackwell eventually returned to Cincinnati six months later, upon finding Henderson to be an unpleasant place, rife with pettiness, tolerance towards slavery and unfavourable simplicity.
Blackwell is known to have taken the decision to pursue a career in medicine after a friend in Cincinnati, dying of a painful disease, suggested to her that the treatment would possibly have been less painful if a female physician had tended to her. Considering women to be a natural in tending to patients because of their innate tendencies towards motherhood, Blackwell was further interested in the career because of its nature to garner freedom from matrimony and patriarchal figureheads in society.
Securing a job in teaching music at an academy in Asheville, North Carolina, Elizabeth began to lodge with the physician-turned-clergyman Reverend John Dickson and use his extensive medical library to study. Her antislavery aspirations continued during the time, and after the academy ceased to exist, she started to lodge with Dickson’s brother, the poet and physician, Samuel Henry Dickson at Charleston, South Carolina. Teaching at a boarding school in the region in 1846 for a while, she left for Philadelphia and New York for medical study the following year.
Blackwell began her training in medicine at the Geneva Medical College in New York, where her life was lived in isolation from friends and suitors and with the townsfolk looking upon her as an eccentric. She spent a summer working for the Guardians of the Poor, the city commission which ran the Blockley Almshouse, a hospital and poorhouse in West Philadelphia, often facing prejudice from several physicians.
After earning her degree, Blackwell opened up her own practice in New York City, which initially wasn’t successful in terms of patient numbers. In 1853, she further opened a small dispensary, New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, close to Tompkins Square. She was supported in this by Marie Zakrzewska, a young German doctor and her protégé, and her younger sister and a medical practitioner herself, Emily. With time, patient numbers began to increase and the institution began to serve as a training facility for nurses as well.
The Civil War led to some complications for Blackwell in her career due to her sympathies with abolitionist roots and personal support for the North. Male physicians from the United States Sanitary Commission did not offer to support the nurse education plan if Blackwell had anything to do with it. During this time, the New York Infirmary went ahead with the training facilities available for nurses with the help of the activist, Dorthea Dix.
Elizabeth returned to England in July 1869 where she co-founded the National Health Society (1871) and tackled social reform subjects close to her heart such as moral reform, sexual purity, women’s rights, preventive medicine, eugenics and medical education in several reform establishments. Her personal belief that Christian morality needs to have an important space in medicine and that disease was borne due to moral impurity rather than microbes, led her to personally prefer more spiritual healing methods over materialistic ones.
She campaigned against prostitution, contraceptives and also the widely active Contagious Disease Act (1864). The Actpermitted police officers to arrest prostitutes operating in various ports and small towns and undergo health checks for sexually transmitted disease. If a woman was to be found infected, she was to be imprisoned in a hospital which specialised in dealing with such patients.
A thorough Conservative she did however differ with many women of the time, by suggesting that men and women have the same sentiments about sex, and it was up to both to control them. Many women of the time subscribed to the point of view that women did not particularly have a whole lot of sentiments towards sex and that it was the task of the woman to instil the moral necessities for all in a society.
Elizabeth never married and continued with her career late into her life. In 1895 she published her memoir, Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women, which sold only 500 volumes. She died on 31 May 1910 at her home in Hastings, England and is buried in the graveyard of St Munn’s Parish Church in Kilmun, Sotland.