28 September 2010

Women Did It Better: Elizabeth Blackwell

By Jennifer Linforth

Elizabeth Blackwell listened.

She possessed the trait of a good doctor from the start, before ever entering medicine. When a dying friend said her worst suffering would have been spared had her doctors been female--Elizabeth Blackwell took that to heart...and all the way to a medical degree.

Graduating from Geneva Medical College in New York in 1849, Blackwell became the first American woman to earn a medical degree. By 1857 she established the New York Infirmary and helped foster medical education for women.

She started out having no idea how to become a doctor. It was just not done for woman of her era. She turned to several physicians associated with her family who warned her it simply was not done, it was too expensive and, frankly, impossible for a woman.

Blackwell felt otherwise.

Convincing two physicians to allow her to essentially apprentice under them for a year, reading all she could of medicine, she applied to schools in New York and Philadelphia. Twelve schools later she was accepted—as a joke--into Geneva Medical College. The faculty allowed the student body to vote her in. The all male class agreed as a jest, assuming she would never succeed.

Two years later, she became the first woman to receive an MD. Blackwell worked in clinics in the State and abroad but contracted purulent ophthalmia from a patient. She returned to New York in 1851 when it caused her to lose her sight in one eye, thus forcing her to give up her dream of becoming a surgeon.

She went on to open her own dispensary and saw patients three afternoons a week. She wrote several books on medical reform, and in 1854 opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. This medical college for women was opened in 1867 and provided training and experience for women doctors. She continued to campaign for reform after her health declined and she gave up the practice of medicine in the late 1870s.