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Changing the Face of Medicine

On February 3, 1821, Anglo-American physician Elizabeth Blackwell was born. Encouraged to pursue a degree in medicine, Blackwell turned to teaching to earn money. Arranging to live in a physician’s house, she also acquired some medical training and introduction to Greek and Latin.

Although established medical schools rejected her, a small medical college in upstate NY accepted. Unknown to her, the small staff had asked its students to vote on letting a woman into the school. Thinking this was a great joke, the students voted to admit her. Fortunately, Blackwell’s desire for medical learning, her intelligence and serious manner eventually won the respect of her peers and instructors.

Resident physicians refused to work with her in her training at a Philadelphia “home” for the sick. Regardless, Blackwell treated and studied the typhus of her patients and had her thesis published in the Buffalo Medical Journal. She graduated first in her class.

However, in January 1849, grudging acceptance was hard to come by. The national and international press spotlighted this world’s first medical degree given a woman. Medical institutions tut-tutted. Blackwell left for Europe.

French and English hospitals also restricted her practice but she acquired more learning and skill. Unfortunately, in caring for a child, Blackwell’s eye was accidentally infected and eventually removed. When she was unable to find a male doctor who would enter into private practice with her, Blackwell returned to NYC.

Although society was still not ready for women physicians, Blackwell never surrendered her vision of women in medicine. She pushed forward to find others of like mind and create progress where she could. Blackwell spoke, wrote, and promoted hygiene for infection control – for the public and her medical peers. She advocated for women’s medical education and practice opportunities. She opened a free dispensary that provided outpatient help for poor women and children. She opened an infirmary for this client base with training and professional positions for women in medicine and nursing that continues today as the New York University Downtown Hospital. The Big Vision grew larger.

She helped organize relief and nursing training efforts during the American Civil War. Only a few years later, although opposed to medical training that segregated women and men, Blackwell opened the Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary. A year later, satisfied her work would continue, Blackwell returned to England where she was already the first woman on its Medical Register.

She spent the next four decades of her life extending her successes and promoted the founding of the London School of Medicine for Women.

Her life of service and of opening doors into medicine for women continues to be honoured in the names of schools, health centers, and clinics. Hobart and William Smith Colleges give the Elizabeth Blackwell Award on an irregular basis to a woman whose life is an extraordinary example of service to humanity. The American Medical Women’s Association awards the Elizabeth Blackwell Medal to a woman physician making outstanding contributions to advancing the cause of women in medicine.

B Bondar / Real World Content Advantage