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Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell: First Woman in American History to Receive a Medical Degree

a vintage photo of Elizabeth BlackwellHow do local leaders arise from a community need? Which doctors have shaped the history of public health in New York City? How did Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell go from abject poverty and social mockery to founding her very own hospital?

Elizabeth Blackwell was the third of nine children, born in Bristol, England to a Quaker anti-slavery activist. When she was 11, the family relocated to Ohio, where Samuel Blackwell (her father) soon died and left the family penniless during the Great Depression. When Elizabeth was 17, she started teaching, to bring in money for her family.

Elizabeth was drawn to arts and humanities, and had no interest in physical sciences. But when her dear friend was dying, she told Elizabeth on her deathbed that she might’ve survived had her doctor been a woman. This inspired Elizabeth to pursue medicine, but women were not permitted to attend medical school. Refusing to take no for an answer, Elizabeth did two apprenticeships with the physicians in the South before moving to Philadelphia to enlist the help of her Quaker friends with her medical school applications. She was rejected everywhere she applied. One letter she received – from Geneva Collage – indicated she could attend, but it was meant as a joke. The male student-body voted “yes” on her application, assuming there was no way a woman could study medicine.

She did not take the letter as a joke. Elizabeth went to college, where she was constantly excluded, degraded, and forced to sit separately from everyone else. When she graduated in 1849, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in American History to receive a medical degree. Even with her degree, she was seldom taken seriously as a doctor, often relegated to midwifery or nurse positions. But she continued to work, and she observed her colleagues. Elizabeth noticed a pattern: when they didn’t wash their hands between patients, epidemics got worse.

She moved to New York City in 1851 to open her own medical practice on University Place. She expected to attract patient, but instead she was ostracized and no one came to her clinic. She applied for jobs within hospitals, including one at the women’s ward of a nearby dispensary, but she was continually rejected. She had a medical degree, but no one would let her be a doctor.

With help from friends, she opened her own public dispensary in a single rented room near Tompkins Square Park, catering to residents of the nearby Eleventh Ward–the Lower East Side–where infectious diseases like cholera and tuberculosis diseases often spread quickly in overcrowded tenements. Elizabeth saw patients three days a week, as well as making house calls. She also started sending educated nurses into the tenements to spread awareness about the importance of personal hygiene. After several years, she was able to move her practice to a small house on 15th Street.

2 other leading female physicians emerged right behind Dr. Blackwell: her sister, Dr. Emily Blackwell, and their Dr. Marie Zakrzewska. In 1857, the 2 women established a hospital. The New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children–at 56 Bleecker Street-would go on to serve over a million patients over its 139 year history. Today, it still exists as a part of New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

The institution provided medical care for New York’s poorest women and children, but it also expanded into a medical college for women, a year after its founding. Their program became the first four-year medical college for women in the United States, and several women who studied under Elizabeth Blackwell became national leaders in the fields of medicine and public health.

When do community crises lead to systemic reform? How do leaders emerge from emergency? If Elizabeth Blackwell did not pursue her goal despite opposition and obstacles, how long might it have been before women entered the field of medicine? How have women’s work and perspectives shaped the health system in the US?

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