Elizabeth Blackwell: Who was the trailblazing doctor and how did she fight for women to practice medicine?

First female to earn a medical degree in the US is the subject of Google Doodle

Tom Barnes
Saturday 03 February 2018 11:36
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Elizabeth Blackwell celebrated with Google Doodle

Today’s Google Doodle marks what would have been the 197th birthday of Elizabeth Blackwell, the pioneering physician who paved the way for women to enter the field of medicine.

Born in Bristol in 1821, her family emigrated to the United States when she was just 11 years old. Blackwell initially began her career as a teacher, setting up a school with her sisters to provide the family with financial stability after the death of her father, Samuel, in 1838.

However, a family friend’s terminal illness soon led her to reconsider her career. The friend believed she would have received more considerate treatment from a female doctor and Blackwell became determined to train as a physician.

She began applying for medical colleges and was rejected numerous times. Only one institution, Geneva Medical College in New York, was prepared to even consider her.

The faculty allowed the college’s all-male student body to vote on her admission, assuming they would never agree to allow a woman into their school. However, in a joke on their professors, the students voted to allow Blackwell to study with them and her admittance was granted in 1847.

Although she had finally gained a place at a medical school, the struggle was only just beginning for Blackwell and she faced much resentment and prejudice from her fellow students. But, against the odds, she received her MD degree two years later, becoming the first woman in America to do so.

After gaining her degree, she went on to work in clinics in London and Paris, studying midwifery at La Maternité, where she contracted purulent opthalmia, losing sight in one eye and putting an end to her ambitions of one day becoming a surgeon.

The setback did not discourage her however and she returned to the US in 1851 to establish a medical practice in New York, before opening her own dispensary in 1853.

Blackwell’s sister, Emily, who had by this time also qualified as a doctor, joined another trailblazing female physician, Dr Marie Zakrzewska, to open the New York Infirmary for Women and Children in 1857.

She began making trips back to Britain in a bid to raise funds in order to launch a similar infirmary on the other side of the Atlantic. It was during a visit to England in 1859 that she became the first woman to have her name entered in the British General Medical Council's register.

During the 1860s and 1870s, Elizabeth Blackwell continued to fight in Britain for the acceptance and support of women in medicine. She was able to achieve sufficient backing in America to add a women's medical school to her New York women's hospital, which opened in November 1868.

In 1869, she made the decision to move back to Britain full-time in order to continue her campaign for reform in medicine.

She founded the National Health Society in 1871, with the goal of educating the public on the benefits of hygiene and healthy lifestyles. Their motto “Prevention is better than Cure”, is still a phrase widely used not just in medical circles, but in society as a whole.

Blackwell had set up a private practice in London in 1870, established the London School of Medicine for Women in 1874 and finally won the right for women to undertake medical degrees in Britain during 1876 following years of campaigning.

Although she did not actively practice medicine in the last 20 years of her life, Blackwell continued to work tirelessly on a number of courses, including medical education, preventative medicine, sanitation, family planning, women's suffrage, the abolition of prostitution and white slavery, morality in government, and liberalisation of the notoriously prudish Victorian society.

She died in Hastings on May 31, 1910, but left behind a sizeable legacy for women in medicine. IN 1881, there were only 25 registered female doctors in England and Wales but a year after her death in 1911 almost 500 were registered across the country.

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