The role of physician, as with many other careers, was once largely closed to women. But that situation changed with the success of pioneers such as Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman to earn a medical degree. Blackwell was born on Feb. 3, 1821, in Bristol, England, and came to New York with her family at the age of 11. Growing up, she first studied to become a teacher, at the time one of the limited career options considered suitable for women. Blackwell turned to medicine after talking to a friend who was dying. The friend suggested that the worst of her suffering would have been spared if her physician had been a woman.
A physician who was a family friend allowed Blackwell to study medicine with him for about a year. However, he cautioned her that although women were not explicitly barred from medical schools, no such institution would agree to a woman joining its ranks. Blackwell applied to all the medical schools in New York and Philadelphia and several others across the United States. In 1847, after dozens of rejections, Blackwell was finally accepted to medical school at Geneva College in New York, despite the reluctance of the school’s students and faculty. In 1849, she became the first woman to receive an M.D. degree from an American medical school.
Following her graduation, Blackwell traveled to Europe for practical training in hospitals there. When she returned to New York in 1851, she encountered much prejudice. Few patients came to see her, and hospitals barred her from their wards. Male doctors ignored her. Eventually, however, Blackwell earned the respect of the medical community and of the public.
In 1857, Elizabeth and her younger sister, Emily Blackwell, opened their own hospital in New York City. The hospital, called the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, was staffed entirely by women and primarily served the poor. The sisters later expanded the hospital to include a medical school for women. Elizabeth Blackwell returned to England in 1869, where she spent the rest of her life campaigning to open the medical profession to women.
In 1949, the American Medical Women’s Association established the Elizabeth Blackwell Medal to honor her achievements. The medal is awarded each year to the woman physician who has made the most outstanding contribution to the cause of women in medicine. Elizabeth Blackwell died on May 31, 1910.