Elizabet Blackwell, first female physician in modern times


 André J. Fabre            2007

 On the morning of Tuesday, January 23, 1849, a young woman, Elizabeth Blackwell, mounted the pulpit at the Presbyterian Church of Geneva, near New York, to receive from the President of the New York Geneva College of Medicine a degree in  medicine.

She was the first woman doctor in modern time but she had struggled a lot to get here… 


  Elizabeth was born in England in Bristol, a great harbor overlooking the Irish Sea.

Her father, Samuel Blackwell, had there a small cane sugar refinery. He was a very religious man, member of the famous sect of Quakers, the members of a Religious Society of Friends, founded by an ardent proselyte, George Fox, who went, in 1671, to America carry the holy message declaring "equal" men and women and saw the native "Redskins"' as witness, as all other humane beings, of  the "Spirit of God "

The egalitarian Quakers went so far as to refuse to remove their hat or even to bow when meeting someone. More over, that rejected all honorary titles as "Mr.", "Mrs.", because, as they kept repeating,  " In the eyes of God, the wealth, power or birth are only small details ". Needless to say, all discrimination between boys and girls was banned and Elizabeth received the same education as her brothers.


  The Blackwell had no luck: a fire in 1830 came to destroy their home and the family had to leave Bristol to emigrate, as many others at the time, the United States.

In New York, the father had a small refinery company, but after some time he decided to go to Ohio State, a place where the anti-slavery movement of the hand of servile work was abolished .. Unfortunately, just arrived in Cincinnati, the father contracted a mysterious "biliary fever" and did not survive long time leaving his family without resources.

Elizabeth had to become private Professor in rich families but her true vocation was medicine. She began as Professor in a physician's home and spent the whole day reading medical books ...

At the same time, faithful to the ideas of her father, Elizabeth was active in many anti-slavery organizations in the State of Ohio. She was joined there by her brother Henry, who had married Lucy Stone, famous feminist activist of the time.

In 1845 Elizabeth settled in North Carolina with another doctor, Dr. Dickson who taught her how to practice medicine. Afrer a while she decided to enter medical studies un a very big City, expected to be open to new ideas,  New York.


 No woman had ever enrolled  in a Faculty of Medicine. The chance of 'Elizabeth was to enter  Geneva Medical College where she was admitted, very likely, in some sort of hoax…

This turned out to be a truly harrowing experience for Elizabeth who had to defy, everyday, the open hostility of students and teachers.

A story goes that in response to a teacher declaring his hostility towards  her hostility toward "all students wearing cap," Elizabeth declared  that she would remain at the bottom of the room, rather than miss the course ...

Despite taunts and bullyings, Elizabeth finished first in her class and received her doctor's degree in 1849.

The way was now clearly open for practicing medicine but the road was rough. It was, in fact, impossible for a female doctor to get any job in the United States, so Elizabeth decided to go to France and practices in Paris at Hopital Tarnier

She practiced there many deliveries but in contact with newborns, she got a severe conjunctivitis which caused the loss of one eye. She had to keep, allthe rest of her life, a glass eye.


 Elizabeth had long planned a care center for women. She returned to the United States in order to create with the help of her sister Emilie and a Polish friend, Marie Zakrzewska, who had also obtained her medical degree, the "New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children ".


 Now, Elizabeth had strongly in mind to come back in her Homeland In 1857, she followed one year the brand bew Bedford College for Women.:

January 1, 1859, anuther historical date for Medicine, Elizabeth, with help of the recent legal dispositions for foreigners , became the first woman to get in Britain her official registration as a doctor.


 In 1861, Elizabeth crosses the Atlantic again, the Civil War had broken out and intends to participate with, of course, the Unionists. She became Instructor of Medicine war, providing women's education on first aid for the injured.


 In 1868 Elizabeth created a U.S. medical school for women directed by her sister Emily

Elizabeth had new projects among which going back to England  where she obtained, shortly before her retirement, the title of Professor of Gynecology .

That was only a semi-retirement since Elizabeth had now in focus, with the help of the very emblematic pioneer of feminist movement in England, Florence Nightingale, the creation, in England, as it did in the United States, a medical school for women.

Always committed against all forms of discrimination against women, she founded, in 1873, the first nursing school in the United States,

She found time to write several books on hygiene issues, including a "Guide to Education for Women" will know a great success as far as Europe is published.


 The life of Elizabeth Blackwell had been a long struggle: she had to fight to be admitted to the University for a degree hitherto reserved to men, to fight in favor of the abolition of slavery, and to obtain the right  the right to practice her job but the  hardest burden, as she often pointed out, was to teach women to dare to affirm their equality to men...

On the old days, a photograph shows Elizabeth full of serenity, in  her homeland alongside her adopted daughter Katharine "Kitty", she had never been married ...

Her end was hastened by a stroke complicated by a fall. She died in 1910 at her home in Sussex and was buried according to her will in the cemetery of St Munn's Parish Church in Kilmun, Scotland.



Date de dernière mise à jour : 30/07/2013

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