Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female physician in America, struggled with sexual prejudice to earn her place in history. She was born in Bristol, England on February 3, 1821 to a liberal and wealthy family. She was the third daughter in a family of nine children. Her father, Samuel Blackwell, believed in the value of education and knowledge and hired a governess for the girls, even though many girls were not educated in those days. In 1832, the family sugar cane plantation went bankrupt, forcing the family to move to America.
As a young lady, Elizabeth Blackwell was similar to other women her age. She had an emotional and passionate nature and had many romantic pursuits. However, in 1838, she moved with her family to Cincinnati, Ohio to escape the charged atmosphere of New York City, New York because of her father’s very vocal abolitionist standing. Later that same year, Samuel Blackwell died, leaving the three older Blackwell girls to take care of the family, which was traditionally a male role. When she was seventeen years old, Elizabeth began a boarding school for ladies with her two older sisters despite society’s opinion of what young ladies should and should not do. Once her brothers were old enough to support the family, Elizabeth refused to give up her teaching career. She went to Kentucky, a South state where she was forced to deal with many prejudices. Upon her arrival, she discovered that the slow-moving Kentuckians were not yet ready for her. In a letter to her sister, she wrote:
The schoolhouse was hardly selected, the windows were broken, the floor and wall filthy, the plaster falling off, and the scholars unnotified of my arrival.
After beginning her teaching job there, she was shocked by the ignorance of the locals. As a young lady, she was not supposed to be intelligent, but her father had taught her well. She was utterly appalled at the lack of educational exposure in Kentucky. She wrote in a letter to her sister, Emily, that:
Carlyle’s name has never even been distantly echoed here; Emerson is a perfect stranger; and Channing, I presume, would produce a universal fainting fit.
Another issue that presented her with difficulties in her teaching job was that of slavery and abolitionism. She had been raised a block away from Harriet Beecher Stowe and had heard stories from Harriet Tubman, so she was appalled at even the minor slavery practiced by the Kentuckians. In her journal, shortly after her arrival, she wrote
But to live in the midst of beings drudging on from earliest morning to latest night, cuffed about by everyone, scolded all day long, blamed unjustly, and without spirit enough to reply, with no consideration in any way for their feelings, with no hope for their future, smelling horribly, and as ugly as Satan–to live in their midst, utterly unable to help them, is to me dreadful and what I would not do long for any consideration.
Her abolitionist leanings made her unpopular in her new community, as did her extreme stands on women’s rights. She was very vocal about what she felt about women, saying in a speech once “if society will not admit of women’s free development, then society must be remodeled.” After a couple of years in Kentucky, she was more than ready for a change.
That change came as a suggestion from the lips of a woman dying of cancer. Mary Donaldson, a long-time friend of Elizabeth Blackwell, suggested that a female doctor would have eased her pain and torment during her battle with cancer. Elizabeth took this suggestion to heart, and actively began a rebellion against unjust societal prejudices. The challenges of her new task fascinated her, as did the eventual opportunities of the medical field to escape societies sexual restrictions. With a single-minded determinedness, she clamped down on her dislike of ugly things to study medicine to improve the conditions for women in the future.In order to achieve this goal, she also had to sacrifice her dreams of romance. In her journal, she wrote, “I feel more determined than ever to become a physician, and thus placed a strong barrier between me and all ordinary marriage.” Now that she was resolved to go against society and scandalize the masses, she had to work hard to fulfill this dream. Her first obstacle was a dearth of financial resources, so she searched diligently until she found a school in Asheville, North Carolina, where the principal would overlook sexual prejudice and hire her and let her use his medical library. Later, she went to Charleston, South Carolina, where Dr. Sam Dickson gave her some rudimentary medical instruction. After applying to nineteen medical colleges in Philadelphia, she was furious enough that she seriously considered dressing as a male and attending, saying that “if the path of duty led to hell, I would go there!” On November 6, 1847, Elizabeth Blackwell was admitted to Geneva Medical School by a unanimous vote of the student body. One obstacle of sexual prejudice was overcome, but there were many more ahead.
Despite her acceptance to medical school, Elizabeth Blackwell had to work very hard to achieve her dream. The staff disapproved of her admittance and went as far as to request that she stay out of classes that would be embarrassing with mixed genders. Despite her refusal to follow this request, Elizabeth starved herself so she would be pale enough to not blush during class discussions of anatomy. She struggled through certain classes and recorded in her journal on November 22, 1847, a few of her difficulties in dissection:
That dissection was just as much as I could bear…My delicacy was certainly shocked…I had to pinch my hand till the blood came, and call on Christ to keep me from smiling.
She also had difficulty overcoming the sexual prejudices of members of her own sex. In a letter to her sister, she described some of the visible signs of prejudice she faced:
I had not the slightest idea of the commotion created by my appearance as a medical student of the little town. Very slowly, I perceived that a doctor’s wife at the table avoided any communication with me, and that as I walked backwards and forwards to college, the ladies stopped to stare at me, as at a curious animal. I afterwards found that I had so shocked Geneva propriety that the theory was fully established either that I was a bad woman, whose designs would gradually become evident, or that, being insane, an outbreak of insanity would soon be apparent…
During her last month at the college, she worked in Philadelphia’s Blockley Almhouse, where she discovered “the hideousness of modern fornication,” which was another topic kept from well-bred ladies of her time. On January 23, 1849, she graduated from Geneva Medical College as the first in her class wearing a black silk dress so she would be “a credit to my college and my sex.”
After graduating, Elizabeth Blackwell found herself welcomed at lectures by the same people who had kept her out of their colleges. However, they still would not accept her as a qualified doctor. She went to La Maternity in France for practical experience, and became a midwife at the same level as a lowly, illiterate peasant girl. She discovered that sexual prejudice was not limited to America, but its “plague was spread all over Europe, too.” While she was working this degrading position, a disaster occurred that ruined her possibilities of becoming an accepted surgeon. In her journal, she recorded the following in relation to the events of November 4, 1849:
In the dark early morning, whilst syringing the eye of one of my tiny patients for perulent opthalmia, some of the water had spurted into my own eye.
They removed her left eye and replaced it with a glass one, and then she went to England to visit friends and recuperate. While in England, her sister, Emily, wrote that she, too, was going to go against traditional roles and become a surgeon.
Elizabeth Blackwell returned to New York in 1853 and opened a small clinic at 44 University Place, where even the poor refused to visit a female physician. It was a very lonely time for her, and she adopted Katherine Barry, nicknamed Kitty, to be her companion. Kitty both helped Elizabeth in her own life and improved her appearance in society, where women were supposed to be mothers. In a journal entry, Elizabeth recorded the importance of Kitty by saying “I have recognized the truth of this part of my nature, and the necessity of satisfying its wants that I may be calm and free for wider work.” In 1856, Emily Blackwell graduated from Case Western University, and on May 7, 1857, the two sisters, with the help of Dr. Marie Zackrzewska, founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children.
Elizabeth Blackwell continued to buck societal restraints during the Civil War, when she founded the United States Sanitary Commission. Later, she moved to England and wrote Counsel to Parents on the Moral Education of Their Children in Relation to Sex, which was met with widespread disapproval. After its publication, she wrote “Looking now at the very reticent way in which the subject is treated in this little book, it is difficult to believe such an episode could have occurred.” Upon her death in Hastings, England on May 31, 1910, there were 7,399 women physicians in the United States alone. Throughout her life, Elizabeth Blackwell fought sexual prejudices in her attempt to improve the condition of women and the world in which she lived.