First Female Physician in the U.S.
By Kathleen McFadden
The medical students in Geneva, New York, thought it was a prank engineered by a rival school when they were asked to vote whether Elizabeth Blackwell should be allowed to enroll in Geneva Medical School. Little did they know when they laughingly approved her admission that Elizabeth would become the first woman in the United States to graduate from medical school and become a physician.
Born in England, Elizabeth emigrated to the United States with her parents and siblings in 1832. When her father’s death six years later plunged the family into poverty, Elizabeth and her sisters opened a private school. After Elizabeth left home, she supported herself by teaching and studied medicine privately with sympathetic physicians. In 1847, she began applying for formal study, but was turned down by all the major medical schools because of her gender – until the Geneva students mistakenly waved her in. Once they discovered that she was serious and that the admission vote wasn’t a joke, the situation turned ugly.
Elizabeth was ostracized by both the students and the townspeople, and for a time she was forbidden to attend medical demonstrations because they were considered inappropriate for a woman. Being allowed to participate, however, also caused problems. In her journal, she described an anatomy class in which a male cadaver was dissected as “a trying day … a terrible ordeal… Some of the students blushed, some were hysterical.”
But she persevered, won over many students with her intelligence and determination, and graduated first in her class in 1849. She completed her medical training in Europe and then returned to New York to practice. But none of the hospitals would hire her, and landlords refused to rent her space for a clinic. So Elizabeth purchased a house where she established her practice, and later set up a free clinic in the New York slums. Although she firmly believed that women should be educated with men in established medical schools, she was unable to change medical school admission policies.
Determined to give women the chance to train as physicians, she established her own women’s medical college in 1868. Her educational standards were higher than those at the all-male medical schools, and she emphasized the importance of proper sanitation and hygiene to prevent diseases.
Leaving the school in capable hands, Elizabeth returned to Britain and settled there, establishing a practice and working for expanded medical opportunities for women. Elizabeth was born on February 3, 1821, and died in 1910.