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Tuesday, January 23, 2024

January 23, 2024: AmericanStudying Groundbreaking Women: Elizabeth Blackwell

[175 years ago Tuesday, Elizabeth Blackwell became Dr. Blackwell, the first woman to graduate from a US medical school. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Blackwell and four other groundbreaking women from American history, leading up to a special weekend post on folks from our own moment!]

On three institutions that together help tell the story of this groundbreaking physician.

1)      Geneva Medical College: Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910)’s first jobs were as a teacher, in conjunction with her educator sister Anna and to help support her financially struggling family. But she had been drawn to medicine from a young age, and in her mid-20s decided to pursue that profession despite the significant obstacles for a woman doing so in 1840s America. The one medical school that responded to her inquiries was Geneva Medical College, a department of New York’s Geneva College; apparently the unanimous October 1847 vote of the 150 current (male) students to accept Blackwell’s application was a joke, but if so the joke was on them, as Blackwell succeeded admirably at her medical studies (despite consistent sexist prejudice and treatment) and graduated on January 23rd, 1849 as that first American woman to receive an MD. Whatever the origins of Blackwell’s Geneva story, the endpoint was a hugely impressive and influential moment.

2)      The New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children: Blackwell began practicing medicine in New York City not long after that graduation, while also going on speaking tours and publishing her first textbook, The Laws of Life with Special Reference to the Physical Education of Girls (1852). But it was when she partnered with two other groundbreaking women, her sister Dr. Emily Blackwell (who became the second American woman to receive an MD when she graduated from Case Western Reserve University in 1854) and Dr. Marie Zakrzewska (a Polish immigrant who likewise graduate from CWRU, in 1856), that Blackwell really took the next step in her career: together the trio expanded Blackwell’s medical practice and dispensary into the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. In an era when (as another groundbreaking 1850s woman, Fanny Fern, could attest from both personal and professional experience) poor women were treated quite terribly, this impressive institution modeled a very different approach and perspective.

3)      The London School of Medicine for Women: Blackwell wasn’t done co-founding impressive institutions, either. In the late 1860s she decided to immigrate to England (where she had traveled many times in her evolving professional career) and help develop women’s medical education there, and once there she partnered with the English physician and former New York Infirmary student Dr. Sophia Jex-Blake. Together the two of them (along with other allies including Emily Blackwell) co-founded the London School of Medicine for Women, which opened in 1874 as the country’s first medical school that would train female physicians. While Blackwell would separate from the school a few years later due to disagreements with Jex-Blake, this institution she helped establish would endure for the next century and a half, merging in the 21st century with the University College Hospital Medical School to become the Royal Free and University College Medical School. In London, New York, and everywhere, Elizabeth Blackwell’s groundbreaking legacy lives on.

Next groundbreaking woman tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other groundbreaking women, past or present, you’d highlight?

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