Elizabeth Blackwell: First Woman Doctor in the U.S.

Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910), an important figure in both the history of medicine and the women’s rights movement, achieved a historic triumph on 23 January 1849 when she was awarded her Medical Degree by Geneva Medical College in New York. With that distinction she became the first woman doctor in U.S. history. She would go on to practice medicine, open the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, establish women’s medical schools in both England and the U.S., and write about the rights of women to be educated and to enter the medical profession.

photo of Elizabeth Blackwell

Photo: Elizabeth Blackwell. Credit: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health; Wikimedia Commons.

A native of England from a strong Quaker family, Blackwell’s family immigrated to America in 1832 when she was 11. She later pursued her interest in medicine by reading extensively in several doctors’ libraries, but none of the leading medical colleges were willing to accept a female applicant. As she proved throughout her life, however, Blackwell’s perseverance was as strong as her intellect.

There is a story that the only reason she got into Geneva Medical College was because the all-male student body voted to accept her application believing it was a hoax. Whether that is true or not, there is no doubt that once Blackwell arrived she worked hard and did well, graduating first in her class in 1849.

portrait of Elizabeth Blackwell, by Joseph Stanley Kozlowski, 1905

Portrait: Elizabeth Blackwell, by Joseph Stanley Kozlowski, 1905. Credit: Upstate Medical University, New York, Library; Wikimedia Commons.

She overcame the initial reluctance of her classmates and teachers in college—but American society in 1849 posed additional challenges for the new graduate to face, as the following newspaper articles show. While some of these articles are supportive, others reflect the public’s resistance to the thought of a woman doctor—an obstacle Blackwell would go on to conquer in her long life and career. She died back in England in 1910 at the age of 89.

photo of Elizabeth Blackwell’s headstone, St. Munn’s Parish Church, Kilmun, Scotland

Photo: Elizabeth Blackwell’s headstone, St. Munn’s Parish Church, Kilmun, Scotland. Credit: NewTestLeper79; Wikimedia Commons.

This flippant notice was published by a Connecticut newspaper.

article about Elizabeth Blackwell, New London Daily Chronicle newspaper article 1 February 1849

New London Daily Chronicle (New London, Connecticut), 1 February 1849, page 2

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Another Connecticut paper was content to announce Blackwell’s news without resorting to sarcasm.

article about Elizabeth Blackwell, New London Democrat newspaper article 3 February 1849

New London Democrat (New London, Connecticut), 3 February 1849, page 2

The New York Star published an editorial saying of women in the medical profession: “Entrust them to be good nurses and familiar with the diseases of females, but beyond that we fear the consequences.” The Albany Express reprinted that editorial, and its article in turn was reprinted by the Richmond Whig.

article about Elizabeth Blackwell, Richmond Whig newspaper article 9 February 1849

Richmond Whig (Richmond, Virginia), 9 February 1849, page 2

Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave, noted abolitionist, and supporter of women’s rights, printed an editorial supportive of Blackwell in his own newspaper.

article about Elizabeth Blackwell, Frederick Douglass’ Paper newspaper article 20 April 1849

Frederick Douglass’ Paper (Rochester, New York), 20 April 1849, page 3

This editorial says in part:

Miss Blackwell is remarkable in that she has succeeded in getting a diploma in spite of opposition from many of the influential Galens [Galen of Pergamon was a Greek physician in the Roman empire – ed.] in this country. There must be a large proportion of the right metal in her composition, or she would never have dared to make the attempt, in opposition to sneers and jeers of the ignorant and self-conceited, about the “sphere,” the “proprieties,” the “decencies,” and all that sort of fudge. Miss Blackwell thinks (and she is right) that whatever a [man] can do, that she may do. If she can think, why should she not think? If she has a mind capable of grasping the most abstruse science, what good reason can be urged against her studying that science.

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The following editorial is an interesting one. It begins with such premises as “the delicacy and shrinking sensibility that is the peculiar attribute of women” and that the “retirement and quietude of the family circle” are “more agreeable to the female disposition.” Yet it goes on to concede there is a need for women doctors (albeit, in the writer’s narrow view, only to serve other women) and concludes by thanking Elizabeth Blackwell for setting “an example for others to follow” and calls for the establishment of “female Medical Schools.” This editorial was published by the Cincinnati Enquirer and reprinted by the Daily Ohio Statesman.

article about Elizabeth Blackwell, Daily Ohio Statesman newspaper article 25 April 1849

Daily Ohio Statesman (Columbus, Ohio), 25 April 1849, page 2

This editorial says in part:

Yet, for all that, it must be confessed, that in a sick chamber [a woman] is a “ministering angel”; and that there are diseases peculiar to females that should be treated by women and women alone. The whole branch of Obstetrics should be left entirely to female practitioners. It is repugnant to our notions of propriety, that any other than female doctors should be engaged in that branch. There are other cases, too, which female delicacy painfully shrinks from in consulting a male doctor about. A female doctor would of course direct her studies particularly, and confine her practice altogether to the diseases and cases that are peculiar to her sex. We may be alone in these notions, yet they are sincerely entertained and have been by us for a long time.

One male doctor who offered his support was a Dr. Bailey, who wrote an article about Elizabeth Blackwell for the National Era newspaper in which he praised her character, hard work and intelligence. His article was reprinted in dozens of newspapers and contributed greatly to the ongoing discussion of this new phenomenon of a woman doctor.

article about Elizabeth Blackwell, National Era newspaper article 5 April 1849

National Era (Washington, D.C.), 5 April 1849, page 53

Dr. Bailey concluded his article this way:

The conclusion of the whole matter, I think, is just this: the subject is no longer a question, but a fact. Miss B. is a worker. Just so far as people are workers, they are omnipotent, every one of them; they need very little help, and cannot be much hindered by anybody. She is one of those who cannot be hedged up, or turned aside, or defeated. She will not stop to complain or wrangle about proprieties with people that never do anything, either right or wrong, and she won’t fret. She is a woman, not of words, but of deeds; and those who only want to talk about it, may as well give it up. Withal, her purpose is higher pitched, her aim is broader, her idea deeper, than appears to those who look only at surfaces, and worry themselves with what they call proprieties and practicabilities.

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Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, aka Frederick Douglass

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott searches old newspapers to learn about one of the great figures in American history: the African American abolitionist, Frederick Douglass.

I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.

—Frederick Douglass

Exactly 119 years ago today, on 20 February 1895, America suddenly and unexpectedly lost one of its most impressive abolitionists, reformers, orators, writers, statesmen, and advocates for equal rights of all people: Frederick Douglass.

photo of Frederick Douglass

Photo: Frederick Douglass. Credit: Wikipedia.

Wanting to know more about this great African American, I turned to GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives to look for old articles to learn about his life and times. I was not disappointed with my research findings.

This obituary of Frederick Douglas appeared in an 1895 New York newspaper. All of us genealogy fans can always appreciate a well-written obituary, and this certainly is one.

Death of Frederick Douglass, Irish American Weekly newspaper obituary 25 February 1895

Irish American Weekly (New York, New York), 25 February 1895, page 4

Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey

Born about 1817 as an African American slave on the eastern shore of Maryland, Frederick Douglass was born with the name of Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. He proceeded to spend his life breaking just about every mold people tried to force him to fit.

Runaway Slave & Man of Many Names

Douglass tried to escape slavery twice before he was finally successful, but once free, he was a wanted man. As a result, he had to change his name from Bailey, to Johnson, and then to Douglass—and as genealogy fans we can appreciate Douglass writing his autobiography, which helps us understand his changing name history.

Rising to Be a Famous American Abolitionist

Just how impressive was Frederick Douglass? Take a look at this article from a 1909 Chicago newspaper with its subheading calling Douglass “…One of the Sublimest and Most Noble Characters…”

The 92nd Anniversary of the Birth of Frederick Douglass, Broad Ax newspaper article 13 February 1909

Broad Ax (Chicago, Illinois), 13 February 1909, page 1

Douglass rose from the hardship of being born into slavery and the cruelty of being removed from his mother’s care as an infant (which was a customary practice in slavery at the time), to finally managing to escape to freedom—and became, at the time, America’s premier African American voice against slavery. One of my favorite quotes by Douglass is captured in this article from a 1952 Kansas newspaper. It is short, but really powerful:

I know of no rights of race superior to the rights of humanity.

Frederick Douglass' Statement, Plaindealer newspaper article 11 July 1952

Plaindealer (Kansas City, Kansas), 11 July 1952, page 7

Facing Abolitionist Opponents

While we all wish this was the case throughout American history, we all know it certainly was not. For an unvarnished view of just how challenging Frederick Douglass’s anti-slavery stand was, I strongly suggest that you look up and read this article from a 1930 Kansas newspaper.

The Truth about the Great Frederick Douglass, Plaindealer newspaper article 30 August 1930

Plaindealer (Topeka, Kansas), 30 August 1930, section: illustrated feature section, page 3

Running an entire page, this article often graphically relates what kinds of perils Douglass faced in his quest to speak out against slavery. Here is one horrifying example:

At Pendleton, Ind., the mob tore down the platform on which he was speaking. When the mob attacked him, he defended himself with a club until his arm was broken and he was battered into unconsciousness. When he regained it, with is arm in a sling, he insisted on speaking again.

Strong Advocate for Women’s Rights

Slavery was not the only cause that Frederick Douglass fought for. As you can read in this article from an 1848 Washington, D.C., newspaper, he supported the Women’s Rights Movement as well. Douglass spoke (he was the only African American invited to speak) at the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, where he continued his strong advocacy for equal rights for women.

article about Frederick Douglass speaking at the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, Daily National Intelligencer newspaper article 16 August 1848

Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.), 16 August 1848, page 2

Frederick Douglass Meets President Lincoln

This article from an 1864 Louisiana newspaper reported on Douglass meeting with President Abraham Lincoln. In a speech he gave afterward, Douglass said:

Now, you will want to know how I was impressed by him [Lincoln]. He impressed me as being just what every one of you have been in the habit of calling him—an honest man.

article about Frederick Douglass meeting President Abraham Lincoln, New Orleans Tribune newspaper article 26 July 1864

New Orleans Tribune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 26 July 1864, page 2

This old article from an 1891 Nebraska newspaper reported that Frederick Douglass advised President Lincoln on the Emancipation Proclamation, and was appointed the U.S. Minster to Hayti (now Haiti).

He (Frederick Douglass) Advised the (Emancipation) Proclamation, Omaha World Herald newspaper article 7 August 1891

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 7 August 1891, page 4

His Home a National Historic Site

Moving toward more current times, the Douglass family home, known as Cedar Hill, became a National Historic Site and a part of our National Park Service, as you can read in this article from a 1972 Wisconsin newspaper.

(Frederick) Douglass Honored, Milwaukee Star newspaper article 24 February 1972

Milwaukee Star (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), 24 February 1972, page 10

Frederick Douglass’ Newspaper

Note: one of the historical newspapers in GenealogyBank’s collection is the very newspaper edited and published by Frederick Douglass himself! It is the Frederick Douglass’ Paper (Rochester, New York), where you can read entire issues of this newspaper from 1847 to 1860.

I’d encourage you to take some time, delve into the newspapers of GenealogyBank’s online collection, and really investigate Frederick Douglass, one of America’s finest!