Guest Author - Christa Mackey
Ladies, we have all been in this situation: you have a delicate issue and you know you need to visit a doctor for said issue, but—God help you—your doctor is male. Today, we have a choice of doctors. We can call for an appointment and choose to see a female doctor. In the mid-1800’s, however, such was not the case. In fact, were it not for the pioneering work of one woman, Elizabeth Blackwell, we may never have received the choice.
Elizabeth Blackwell, born the third of nine children in England, immigrated with her family to New York in 1832. Four of the nine Blackwell children would become influential in the Women’s Suffrage movement as well as the Anti-Slavery movement. Her brothers, Henry Brown Blackwell and Samuel C. Blackwell, both married women who were instrumental in the Suffrage movements of the time.
At the time, women were not really “allowed” to do much in working world. They could, however, be school teachers. That was exactly what Elizabeth decided to do. She taught school and enjoyed her work. According to her own words in her book, Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women, Elizabeth had no desire to enter into the medical profession. Frankly, it disgusted her. A close friend of hers, however, sparked her thoughts. This friend was dying of an undisclosed disease and spoke the words that many of us women have thought, secretly: if only my doctor had been female.
It was at that time that Elizabeth began to query about how to become a physician. She asked many family friends, all of whom said it was a noble idea…but impossible for her. Elizabeth’s ears perked at the challenge. She convinced some of her friends who were doctors to allow her to study with them for one year. During that year, Elizabeth worked diligently and applied to all the medical schools she could. Persistence paid off. Almost as a joke, she was accepted at Geneva College—an all-male school—in 1847. Her application was put to the student body for a vote and, as a joke, the men voted her in. Upon her arrival, however, they were not laughing quite so hard.
Today, Upstate Medical College is quite proud of their first female graduate. In fact, there is a web page on their site dedicated to the first woman in the United States to receive the M.D. degree. But, in 1849, they were less than thrilled with unconventional doctor.
Upon her graduation, the hospitals banned her from practicing medicine. She did not allow that to stop her and simply went to France to work at La Maternité. It was here that she contracted an eye infection, eventually losing sight in her eye. Again, she did not allow the negative to interfere with her goals. She went back to New York and with her sister, Emily Blackwell (who also became a doctor), and another female doctor, Dr. Marie Zakrzewska, opened a clinic for poor families. Ten years later, they also opened a medical college to train female doctors.
All in all, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell left not only a legacy, but an indelible mark upon the pages of American history, as well. She fought against “the man” who tried to keep her down, and refused to allow such things to happen. For women everywhere, we can thank her for allowing us the choice—the choice to have our problems discussed with one who could understand us—our sister—our female doctor.