This Week in History: Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman to earn a medical degree, was born in 1821.

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.

This Week In History: Stonewall Jackson, Confederate Army general in the American Civil War, born in 1824

Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was a Confederate general of the American Civil War (1861-1865). Jackson earned his nickname at the First Battle of Bull Run (or First Battle of Manassas). After that battle, he became one of the best and most famous generals who fought under Robert E. Lee. During the Battle of Chancellorsville, Jackson was mortally wounded after his own soldiers accidentally shot him.

Thomas Jackson was born on Jan. 21, 1824, in Clarksburg, Virginia (now West Virginia). He was orphaned at an early age and raised by an uncle. Jackson received sketchy schooling, but he worked hard and secured an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy in 1842. Because of his inadequate schooling, he had to work several times harder than most cadets to absorb lessons. But his grades slowly climbed until he graduated in the upper third of his class.

Jackson served in the Mexican War (1846-1848), where he first met Robert E. Lee. After that war ended, Jackson served at various forts. In 1850, his company went to Florida to fight the Seminole Indians. Jackson left the army in 1851 and joined the faculty of the Virginia Military Institute at Lexington, where he taught until 1861. He was not popular as a teacher, and the students mocked his reportedly stern nature and eccentric traits.

Although he favored preservation of the Union, Jackson went with his state, Virginia, when it seceded. An unknown when the war started, he soon made a reputation in the First Battle of Bull Run. During the battle, Union soldiers initially forced the Confederates to retreat. However, Jackson positioned his newly arrived troops to meet the Union advance and helped secure a Confederate victory. Confederate General Barnard E. Bee, trying to rally his troops, saw Jackson’s line and shouted, “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall. Rally behind the Virginians!” From then on, Jackson was known as “Stonewall,” and his brigade as the Stonewall Brigade. Some historians actually believe Bee was criticizing Jackson for just standing in place like a “stone wall.” Bee never had a chance to explain his comment—he died in the battle.

In the Shenandoah Valley in 1862, Jackson earned international fame. With not more than 17,000 men, he defeated 60,000 Union troops in a series of lightning marches and brilliant battles. After the campaign ended in June, Jackson raced to the aid of Lee at Richmond. He fought in the Seven Days’ Battles, and at Cedar Mountain, the Second Battle of Bull Run, Antietam (Sharpsburg), and Fredericksburg.

Jackson fought his greatest battle in May 1863 at the Battle of Chancellorsville. On May 2, Lee divided his forces and sent Jackson on a long march around the Union army and toward its flank. That afternoon, Jackson’s troops rushed out of the woods and surprised the Union army. Jackson routed the Union troops, until darkness and a Union defensive line halted the attack.

That night, Jackson and some other Confederate officers rode ahead of the Confederate positions to scout for their next attack. Confederate pickets, who thought Union troops were attacking their position, fired on the officers as they returned to their lines. Two bullets hit Jackson, and his left arm had to be amputated. Lee, emphasizing the wounded general’s importance, stated: “He has lost his left arm; but I have lost my right arm.” Eight days later, Jackson died of pneumonia.

This Week In History: Sir John Alexander Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, was born in 1815

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Sir John MacDonald, first prime minister of Canada after the Confederation, born, 1815. (January 11)

To what extent can one individual influence a nation’s political history? In the case of John Alexander Macdonald, quite a lot. Macdonald, known as “Canada’s Patriot Statesman” and as the father of modern-day Canada, was a driving force in forming and keeping intact a new nation. If Macdonald had not been born, what sort of creature would present-day Canada be? Would it even be a cohesive independent nation? Or would it comprise part of the United Kingdom, or perhaps of the United States? Former Canadian Senator Hugh Segal (b. 1950) said of Macdonald that without him, “we’d be a country that begins somewhere at the Manitoba-Ontario border that probably goes throughout the east. Newfoundland would be like Alaska and I think that would also go for Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C.” So who was Macdonald and what did he do that so affected the story of his fledgling nation?

Macdonald was born on Jan. 11, 1815, in Glasgow, Scotland. His family was not wealthy or politically prominent. John’s father, Hugh, moved his family to Upper Canada, a British colony in what is now Ontario, in 1820. John proved to be a bright student and finished his formal schooling at the age of 14. He went on to study law and was admitted to the bar of Upper Canada in 1836. Macdonald began his political career when he was elected as an alderman in Kingston in 1843. Kingston was the capital of the fairly new Province of Canada, formed from Upper Canada and Lower Canada (part of present-day Quebec) in 1841. In 1844, Macdonald easily won a seat as a Conservative in the province’s legislature. During the late 1850’s and early 1860’s, he served as co-premier of the Province of Canada. He became known for his ability to see beyond party lines and for his talent for building consensus. In 1864, Macdonald helped establish a coalition of three distinct political parties that agreed to cooperate and govern the Province of Canada together.

In the early 1860’s, the British provinces in North America were considering the idea of confederation. Factors that gave force to this idea included the instability of provincial governments, a desire to expand westward, and fear of U.S. expansion from the south. During a series of conferences from 1864 to 1866, representatives from New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and the Province of Canada met to discuss and form a plan for confederation. Macdonald was largely responsible for drafting this plan. Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island initially rejected the plan, but the other provinces joined together to form the Dominion of Canada in 1867. The Province of Canada became two provinces—Ontario and Quebec. The governor general of the new nation asked Macdonald to become its prime minister, and Queen Victoria knighted Macdonald.

Macdonald served as prime minister from 1867 to 1873 and from 1878 to 1891. He held the office for nearly 19 years and won six majority governments, more than any other prime minister. As prime minister, Macdonald worked tirelessly to expand and strengthen the new nation. His governments fought separatists, bought large areas of land to increase Canada’s area, put down rebellions against westward expansion, and built the Canada Pacific Railway to connect eastern and western Canada. British Columbia, Manitoba, and Prince Edward Island all joined the Dominion during Macdonald’s first administration. Macdonald later worked to protect Canada’s developing economy with the National Policy, which imposed high tariffs on American goods. In addition, his government established the North-West Mounted Police, a precursor to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, to protect and maintain order in western Canada.

Macdonald died on June 6, 1891, after suffering a stroke. He was 76 years old and had won his final election only three months earlier. Macdonald was buried in a simple grave in Kingston, Ontario. His second and only surviving son, Hugh John Macdonald, became premier of Manitoba in 1900. In 2002, Canada’s government established January 11 as Sir John A. Macdonald Day.

This Week in History: Deborah Sampson, American soldier, born in 1760

Deborah Sampson, woman who served in the American Revolution while disguised as a man, born, 1760. (December 17)

Deborah Sampson, woman who served in the American Revolution while disguised as a man, born, 1760. (December 17)

On Dec. 17, 1760, Deborah Sampson was born in Plympton, Massachusetts. She was a descendant of William Bradford, a Plymouth Colony governor, yet she grew up in poverty. She worked during her teenage years as an indentured servant, and she later became a schoolteacher. However, she would become best known for her service as a soldier in the American Revolution (1775-1783).

When the American Revolution began, Sampson, like many Americans, wished to support the patriot cause. However, at that time, women were not allowed to serve in the military. Undeterred, Sampson chose to disguise herself as a man. She concealed her physique, made herself men’s clothing, and practiced behaving as a man. Finally, under the name Robert Shurtleff, she enlisted in the 4th Massachusetts Regiment of the American army in May 1782.

Sampson fought in several battles and was wounded at least twice. She was shot multiple times, and once reportedly removed a bullet herself. She hid a leg wound so that doctors would not discover she was a woman. About June 1783, Sampson was hospitalized in Philadelphia because of a high fever, and her identity was discovered. General George Washington ordered that she be given an honorable discharge.

After her war experience, Sampson returned to Massachusetts, married, and had children. A book about Sampson’s army experiences, The Female Review, was published in 1797. In 1805, the United States Congress awarded her a pension because of her military service and wounds. Sampson died on April 29, 1827.

This Week in History: Phi Beta Kappa was founded on Dec. 5, 1776

Phi Beta Kappa is a college and university honor society. It was founded during the American Revolution (1775-1783) at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. A group of five students gathered in the Apollo Room at the Old Raleigh Tavern. One of these students, John Heath, proposed that there should be a society for more serious-minded students, those who achieve high academic records and demonstrate integrity of character. The founders chose the name ΦBK, the Greek letters for the society’s motto, “Love of learning is the guide of life.” The Greek initials formed the name Phi Beta Kappa. It was the first American fraternity with a Greek-letter name.

Phi Beta Kappa was originally organized as a secret society. The founders believed secrecy was necessary so that members could freely discuss any topic they chose to in literature and philosophy. The group had an oath of secrecy, a badge and a seal, a motto in Greek and Latin, a code of laws, an elaborate initiation, and a special handshake. These became essential characteristics of the Greek social fraternities and sororities that followed. During the 1800’s, the organization abandoned secrecy. Phi Beta Kappa became an honor society with a mission to champion education in the liberal arts and sciences, to recognize academic excellence, and to embrace freedom of thought and expression.

Today, Phi Beta Kappa has chapters at nearly 300 colleges and universities throughout the United States and more than half a million members. Both men and women can belong, and membership is for life. New members are elected—primarily by Phi Beta Kappa college faculty—from seniors and juniors with outstanding academic records. Each year, about 1 student in 100, nationwide, is invited to join Phi Beta Kappa. The honor society counts some of the most notable names in the world among its ranks, including nearly 140 Nobel laureates; 38 U.S. Supreme Court justices—including 7 of the 9 current justices; and 17 U.S. presidents, including Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush are the sons of Phi Beta Kappa members. All of these people have one thing in common: the pursuit of excellence. And for more than two centuries, the members of Phi Beta Kappa have done just that, though today, laptops have replaced quill pens.

This week in history: Iconic baseball player Joe DiMaggio was born this week in 1914

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Joe DiMaggio, who was born on Nov. 25, 1914, was one of the greatest and most popular players in baseball history. DiMaggio played his entire career, from 1936 to 1951, with the New York Yankees. He was nicknamed “the Yankee Clipper” because of his graceful fielding as an outfielder. He was also called “Joltin’ Joe” because of his powerful hitting.

DiMaggio had a lifetime batting average of .325 and hit 361 home runs. His record of hitting safely in 56 consecutive games in 1941 is one of the most enduring in baseball history. DiMaggio played in 10 World Series and was voted the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1939, 1941, and 1947.

DiMaggio was a superhero in American sports before television was available to spread the popularity of celebrities. Americans eagerly followed his playing career and personal life through newspapers and on radio. DiMaggio’s brief marriage to actress Marilyn Monroe in 1954 caused a national sensation. More than 15 years after DiMaggio retired as a player, Paul Simon’s hit song “Mrs. Robinson” could still nostalgically capture the hold that the baseball great had on the American imagination:

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
A nation turns its lonely eyes to you,
What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson,
“Joltin Joe” has left and gone away.

Joseph Paul DiMaggio was born in Martinez, California. He died in Hollywood, Florida, on March 8, 1999. Two of his brothers, Dominic and Vincent, also played major league baseball. DiMaggio was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955, the first year he was eligible.