Scientist of the Day - Elizabeth Blackwell
Elizabeth Blackwell, an English-born American physician and medical reformer, died May 31, 1910, at age 89. She came from a dissenting religious background, which tends to produce strong and determined individuals. Once moved to the United States, and after the death of her father when she was 17, Elizabeth decided to go to medical school. She made that choice, not because she liked the subject—in fact, she disliked it intensely—but because several older women had told her that they would have suffered much less had they had a woman for a physician. Initially, no schools would consider admitting her, but she finally found a medical school in western upstate New York, Geneva Medical College, that agreed to accept her. So off she went in 1847. By 1849, she had her medical degree, and she was the first woman in the country to have such a diploma.
She worked for a few years in London and Paris (where she lost the sight in one eye from an infection acquired in a maternity ward), and then returned to New York City. She could not find a position in any of the hospitals or clinics there, so she opened her own infirmary for indigent women and, by 1857, this had become the New York Infirmary for Women. Subsequently, she established there a medical school for women. The Women’s Medical College of New York Infirmary was the first medical school in the country to require four years of study. When the New York Infirmary burned down at the end of the century, the Women’s College was subsumed by Cornell Medical College, which opened in New York City in 1898 and admitted women from its inception. It had taken fifty years for the gender barrier in medicine to fall (or at least open up a little), and it is nice that Blackwell lived to see the fruits of her pioneering work (she lived until 1910).
The images show an advertisement for the Women’s Medical College of 1868-69 (note that one of the physicians listed was Elizabeth’s sister Emily, the third American woman to earn a medical degree); a portrait of a young Miss Blackwell; a later portrait of 1905; a statue erected on the grounds of Upstate Medical University (formerly Geneva Medical College); and a 1974 U.S. postage stamp that honored the First Lady of American medicine.
Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to firstname.lastname@example.org.