On January 23, 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman in the United States to earn a medical degree when she graduated from New York’s Geneva Medical College. As a major supporter of medical education for women, Blackwell was responsible for encouraging many other women to become doctors. Almost 170 years later, half of all medical school graduates are women. Thanks to Blackwell’s dogged determination, today women are now on the cutting edge of the medical profession and, as a result, saving lives around the world.
Blackwell was born in Bristol, England in 1821. Her family moved to America when she was 11 years old because her father wanted to help the growing abolitionist movement. Ater a close friend died, Blackwell was inspired to become a doctor. She believed that if her friend’s doctor had been a woman, she would have suffered less.
However, Blackwell faced many barriers in her pursuit of a medical degree. She spoke to family friends who were physicians and they told her that it would be impossible for a woman to attend medical school. Nevertheless, she persisted. She convinced two physician friends to let her study with them for a year. In that time, she applied to all of the medical schools in the New York and Philadelphia area. In 1847, she was accepted by Geneva Medical College. The faculty had allowed the all-male student body to vote on if she should be accepted or not into the institution. As a joke, the students voted “yes” to admit her. The joke was on them. Blackwell became the first female in the U.S. to earn an M.D. when she graduated two years later.
Although she dreamed of becoming a surgeon, Blackwell lost sight in one eye in 1849 making that medical path impossible. Instead, in 1853, she opened up a medical clinic in New York City that became the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. A lifelong advocate for women in the medical profession, she opened up a medical college for women in 1867. As a result, women were afforded access to training and experience to follow in the footsteps of the trailblazer, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell.
Thanks to Blackwell’s efforts, women are at the forefront of the medical profession today. For example oncologists, Dr. Laura Esserman and Dr. Shelley Hwang, are conducting research into breast cancer treatments that could ultimately prevent needless mastectomies. Pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha was the first person to connect the dots between Flint’s water supplies’ elevated lead levels and the health problems that children were experiencing. Additionally, the first to respond to the Ebola outbreak in Guinea was Dr. Joanne Liu, the International President of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
These women and more are continuing to make lifesaving moves in the medical field. They can thank Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell for making the bold move of applying to medical school despite the barriers in her way!