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.
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.
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.
This flippant notice was published by a Connecticut newspaper.
Another Connecticut paper was content to announce Blackwell’s news without resorting to sarcasm.
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.
Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave, noted abolitionist, and supporter of women’s rights, printed an editorial supportive of Blackwell in his own newspaper.
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.
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.
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.
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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