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The Blackwell Sisters, our first female doctors

Updated on October 12, 2011

First woman to graduate from an American Medical School

I cannot imagine what it must have been like all those years ago when women were stopped from voting and gaining an education. I could not possibly fathom the frustration those women must have felt; the powerlessness must have drove them mad. The fact is that it was not all that long ago that women could not vote, be educated at a college, buy land, or even get a divorce.

Elizabeth Blackwell was born in England in 1821. Her parents were Quakers by faith and strongly opposed to slavery and oppression. Her father ran a successful sugar refining business in Bristol. In 1832 the family endured a horrible fire. Their sugar refining plant burned to the ground.The business was the family income. They came to America as many immigrants did desperate and looking for work. They had moved several times before settling in Ohio.

Tragedy would strike this family again. Elizabeth's father suffered a tick bite and came down with a fatal case of biliary fever. The infection spread quickly in his blood stream and destroyed his gall bladder. In most cases the person becomes jaundice and is striken with an extremely high temperature and die from the fever. It was a rare illness that usually would strike dogs or horses. The animals who were infected by the bacterium died within hours of the first signs of fever. Her father's sudden death left her family financially destitute.

Elizabeth helped support her family by teaching school. The death of her father was an awful blow. She learned the need for better medical knowlege in the world and wanted to pursue an education in medicine. During her lifetime, women were not encouraged to get an education. In most cases they faced discrimination on every level and were prevented from a college education. Elizabeth was turned down from eight medical schools. There did not seem to be light at the end of the tunnel. She found a host family in Kentucky and taught school there in a small, cold, one room school house. After applying nine times to nine different medical schools Elizabeth Blackwell was finally accepted into Geneva College in New York State. She earned her medical degree there in 1849. This was at a time when Zachary Taylor was president. Elizabeth was 28 years old.

Women doctor's were unheard of in that time. She was often mocked and harrassed. Her sister Emily followed in her footsteps. She became a doctor as well. In 1853 Elizabeth open a small hospital of her own. For eight years the two sisters ran the hospital together in New York City. Then the Civil War hit. They continued to see patients throughout the Civil War. In July of 1863 the hospital had been in business for ten years. During the Anti- Draft riots that broke out in NYC many were killed. Elizabeth and Emily were right in the thick of things yet, kept their hospital running all through the violent events.

Elizabeth did become a mother. She adopted a small Irish orphan girl who became her greatest delight. Eventually, Elizabeth and Emily would break another barrier together by founding a new medical college, one that accepted women students.

Discouraged by discrimination Elizabeth finally left the United States and never returned. She moved back to England around 1870. In London Elizabeth taught medical school at London School of Medicine and was a highly regarded professional. She died in 1910.

I admired these women for their courage and perseverance. They should always be remembered as women who opened many doors so other women could follow through with their dreams.

By Joanne Kathleen Farrell, author of Liberty for the LIon Shield

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    • janeenjesse@yahoo profile image

      Joanne Kathleen Farrell 5 years ago from Rensselaer NY

    • WesternHistory profile image

      WesternHistory 6 years ago from California

      This is a very interesting story. The discrimination against women in the professions was quite widespread in the U.S. Women in the U.S. didn't achieve suffrage until 1920 so you can imagine how women trying to break into an all male profession would have had a very difficult time in the 1860's. Thanks for an excellent hub.