Elizabeth Blackwell, MD: America’s First Formally Accredited Female Physician

Elizabeth Blackwell was one of America's most important historical female doctors.
Elizabeth Blackwell played a major role in organizing medical relief facilities for soldiers of the Union Army during the Civil War. The Women’s Central Association for Relief (WCAR) she founded led to the creation of the U.S. Sanitary Commission which operated 30 major facilities like this one in Alexandria, Virginia.

Elizabeth Blackwell, MD., was America’s first formally accredited female doctor. Admitted to medical school as a joke, she proved she who laughs last, laughs best.

Her future in medicine was far from certain in 1847, when it was assumed women were morally unfit to practice medicine; that they were ignorant, inexact, untrustworthy, un-businesslike, lacking in sense and mental perception, and contemptuous of logic.

Rejected by 29 medical schools
But never one to pass up a challenge, Blackwell studied privately with several physician friends before applying for admission to every medical college in Philadelphia and New York City — 29 in all — and being firmly rejected by all of them.

Though Blackwell received her medical degree at the top of her class in January of 1849, she was banned from practicing by the medical community.

Only the dean of Geneva Medical College in western New York agreed to put her application to a vote by his 150 male students; if even one voted “no,” Blackwell would be barred from admission. But the students, thinking this was so ridiculous it had to be a joke, unanimously voted to admit her.

Imagine their surprise when she arrived at school, ready to take her place alongside them. Though Blackwell received her medical degree at the top of her class in January of 1849, she was banned from practicing by the medical community.

New York Infirmary for Women
She went to Europe to study obstetrics and gynecology and pediatrics, returning to New York City in 1851 to start her own practice. But no male doctor would accept her as an associate; no landlord would rent her office space; and few patients relished being treated by a woman.

One of America's most important historical female doctors, Elizabeth Blackwell
After the Civil War, Blackwell went on to establish medical schools for women in both the U.S. and England.

Nevertheless, she persisted. Reconsidering her options, she opened a dispensary for Manhattan’s poor which, by 1857, had become the New York Infirmary for Women and Children — today’s New York-Presbyterian/Lower Manhattan Hospital.

An early advocate of cleanliness as an important aspect of health, especially in times of war, Blackwell helped establish the civilian-run infrastructure that became the U.S. Sanitary Commission in 1861 under the auspices of President Lincoln.

Medical Schools for women
She created a medical school for women in the late 1860s, providing students of the Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary with a highly-structured, competitive curriculum before returning to England, where she helped establish the London School of Medicine for Women in 1874-75.

Dr. Blackwell taught there until 1907, when she was seriously injured in a fall down a flight of stairs. She died in 1910 at her home in Hastings, East Sussex, England.