Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) was the first woman in the United States to receive a medical degree and the first woman listed on the UK Medical Register. As a physician, Blackwell championed the acceptance of women in medicine, eventually opening a medical college for women. She also worked for social and moral reform in the United States and Europe.
The third of nine children, Blackwell was born 3 February 1821 to Samuel Blackwell and Hannah Lane of Bristol, England. Her father was a Quaker who believed that his male and female children all deserved unlimited access to education. To this end, he supplied Blackwell with a governess and private tutors.
The family moved to America in 1832, and settled in Cincinnati, Ohio. Following the death of her father in 1838, Blackwell began a career in education. She partnered with two of her sisters to open The Cincinnati English and French Academy for Young Ladies. The school closed in 1842, and Blackwell subsequently took positions teaching in Kentucky and North Carolina.
While working as a teacher, Blackwell boarded in the homes of two different physicians who mentored her. Blackwell decided to pursue a career in medicine, but encountered resistance from the medical community. Schools were reluctant to accept a female student. In October 1847, Blackwell was finally accepted by the Geneva Medical School at Hobart College in upstate New York. Although she faced discrimination by faculty and students, Blackwell persevered and graduated top of her class in 1849.
Upon graduating from medical school, Blackwell trained at the Blockley Almshouse in Philadelphia. After treating patients who suffered from typhus, Blackwell became a crusader for public health reform. Later, Blackwell departed for Europe and continued her education at La Maternite in Paris. There, she continued to encounter prejudice against women physicians and was allowed to continue her education only as a student midwife. At La Maternite, Blackwell contracted an eye infection from a patient and lost sight in her left eye.
Feeling that women were more accepted in New York City, Blackwell returned to the United States in 1851. In 1853, she established her first dispensary. In 1857, Blackwell partnered with her sister, Emily Blackwell, and fellow physician, Marie Zakrzewska, to open the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. During the Civil War, the infirmary partnered with Dorthea Dix to train nurses for the Union.
In 1868, Blackwell and her sister established a medical college for women in conjunction with the infirmary. However, a falling out between the sisters soon after the school opened led to Blackwell’s removal to Britain. In London, Blackwell opened a women’s medical school with Sophia Jex-Blake, and served as a lecturer in midwifery until 1877.
Blackwell retired from medicine in 1877. From 1880 to 1895, she worked for social reforms including medical education, preventive medicine, sanitation, and women’s rights. In 1895, Blackwell published her autobiography, Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women. She died on 31 May 1910 in Hastings, Sussex.