Filed Under Healthcare

Elizabeth Blackwell, the First Female Doctor in the United States

Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell was a breaker of barriers. In 1849 she became the first female physician in America, and throughout her career pioneered care for women. Blackwell paved the way for future female doctors, and actively worked to expand opportunities for woman physicians through training and employment.

Elizabeth Blackwell was born in Bristol, England on February 3rd, 1821, to Hannah Lane and Samuel Blackwell. Influential to both the medical field and to women worldwide, she was the first woman to earn an MD in 1849 from Geneva College in New York. Blackwell moved to Cincinnati in 1838 with her parents and sisters as her father searched for success in farming.

Samuel Blackwell became ill and passed away shortly after moving to Cincinnati. To support themselves, Elizabeth, her sisters, and mother opened The Cincinnati English and French Academy for Young Ladies in their home 8th Street between Walnut and Main. Blackwell served as a teacher at this school during much her time in Cincinnati.

Elizabeth was inspired to become a doctor when her dying friend suggested that she would’ve been treated better if her physician was a woman. Elizabeth Blackwell soon enrolled at the Geneva Medical School to become a doctor. While there she faced discrimination based on her gender, was forced to sit separately during lectures, and excluded from class activities. Despite this, she graduated in 1849 as the first American woman to earn an MD.

Emily Blackwell, Elizabeth’s sister, followed in her sister’s footsteps to become a doctor. Geneva Medical School declined her application, but she attended Case Western Reserve University where she graduated in 1854 to become the 3rd woman in the United States to earn an MD.

Blackwell practiced medicine in New York through the 1850s, first opening a small clinic for poor women. In 1857, the Blackwell sisters, joined by Dr. Marie Zakrzewska, opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, which worked to provide opportunities for female physicians. Blackwell and her sister continued their work during the Civil War by training nurses for Union hospitals.

While Blackwell made significant contributions to the medical field, she also was an advocate for social justice. Blackwell was an open critic of slavery. In her book, Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women, she states “I dislike slavery more and more every day; I suppose I see it here in its mildest form, and since my residence here I have heard of no use being made of the whipping-post, nor any instance of downright cruelty.”

Blackwell was also an advocate for the advancement of women, constantly pushing for women’s education and equal rights. In a letter to Baroness Anne Isabella Milbanke Byron, she wrote, “I do not wish to give [women] a first place, still less a second one--but the most complete freedom, to take their true place whatever it may be.” . She made it her life’s work to provide opportunities to women.

Images

Elizabeth Blackwell’s Historical Market at 828 Walnut Street
Elizabeth Blackwell’s Historical Market at 828 Walnut Street Creator: AJ Gillespie
Portrait of Elizabeth Blackwell
Portrait of Elizabeth Blackwell Source: Library of Congress via Britannica
Dr. Emily Blackwell, Elizabeth’s Sister
Dr. Emily Blackwell, Elizabeth’s Sister Source: Blackwell-McKinley Society, Case Western Reserve University

Location

828 Walnut Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202

Metadata

AJ Gillespie, Nick Frazier, Brenden Pulte, “Elizabeth Blackwell, the First Female Doctor in the United States,” Cincinnati Sites and Stories, accessed July 18, 2024, https://stories.cincinnatipreservation.org/items/show/202.