In 1849, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman in America to receive a M.D. degree.
Born in Bristol, England, Blackwell’s family moved to America when she was eleven-years old. Initially, the thought of being a doctor did not appeal to Blackwell.
[I] hated everything connected with the body, and could not bear the sight of a medical book . . . My favourite [sic] studies were history and metaphysics, and the very thought of dwelling on the physical structure of the body and its various ailments filled me with disgust.
When a dying friend confided in Blackwell about how a female doctor could have lessened her suffering, Blackwell began to look at medicine differently. After she began researching and inquiring about the possibility of studying medicine, she soon realized the challenges facing women. Spurred on by those challenges, she studied medicine independently for a year before applying to all of the medical schools in Ne w York and Philadelphia and twelve more in the northeast states.
In 1847, Geneva Medical College in western New York accepted her on the condition that the all-male student body and faculty would vote. She was granted admittance when they voted “yes” as a joke. Little did they know that Blackwell was entirely serious in her decision to study medicine and two years later, she earned her M.D. degree.
After graduating, Blackwell worked in London and Paris clinics before contracting “purvulent opthalmia.” By 1851 she lost sight in one eye and her goal of becoming a surgeon ended. She returned to New York City and established her own practice but closed it after too few patients and no room for intellectual exchange with fellow physicians. She sought a larger idea instead. By 1856 her younger sister, Dr. Emily Blackwell, and Dr. Marie Zakrzewska, joined her and together they opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. Eleven years later the women opened a medical college for women pursuing medicine. Through their institution and college they provided opportunities for women in the medical field as well as giving medical care to the poor.
Blackwell moved back to England as her health became to decline. She still campaigned for women in medicine, the women’s rights movement and for sanitation and hygiene reform in hospitals until her death on May 13, 1910.