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Elizabeth Blackwell

"Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell: Determination Helped Her Break Medical Barriers For Women"

Investor's Business Daily, August 10, 1999
By Laura Diggs Joyner

Elizabeth Blackwell had been accepted to Geneva (N.Y.) Medical College , or so she thought. Male students turned their backs on her. The assistant professor of anatomy wouldn’t allow her in class.

She couldn’t find living space, because apartment managers refused to rent to her, believing in 1847 that only a "mad or bad" woman would try to become a doctor.

Blackwell (1821-1910) refused to get discouraged. Ever since she’d visited a fatally ill friend of her mother several years earlier, she’s been determined to become a doctor.

"(The woman) said to me that she knew a woman doctor would have known what to do to save her," Blackwell said later. "That gave me pause. Becoming a doctor wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. After watching her suffer so badly, I knew someone must step forward and make a difference."

But how would Blackwell become a doctor? No woman had ever been admitted to medical school anywhere. If she were admitted, how could she afford to take classes?

Blackwell was a native of Bristol, England, who had come with her family to the U.S. when she was 15. Her father had died two years later, leaving his wife and their five children destitute.

So Elizabeth Blackwell figured out a way to teach herself medicine. She found a minister and former doctor in Asheville, N.C., who would board her and give her full use of his medical library. In exchange, she would teach at his school for girls, working there 10 or 12 hours a day.

When the school closed a year later, Blackwell stayed optimistic. She looked for a similar situation , which she quickly found. She jumped to a post at a Charleston, S.C., girls school, whose doctor-owner let her continue her studies. Impressed with Blackwell’s determination, he wrote to medical schools on her behalf. They all turned her down.

A Philadelphia doctor who ran a school of anatomy offered to tutor her privately in the evenings, and she accepted his offer.

"It was quite difficult at times, but I knew I could do it," she said. Impressed, the doctor wrote on her behalf to every big medical school in the country. None accepted her , until the letter came from Geneva Medical College.

She decided to ignore those who scorned her and walked proudly into classes. She refused to get disgusted when male students tried to make her tremble.

Geneva’s program was for two school years of just four months apiece. Blackwell had to struggle to find a staff hospital position. Finally, the Blockley Almshouse in Philadelphia agreed to let her work in 1848. Officials refused to call her an intern even though male medical students had the title.

Doctors at Blockley Almshouse tried to sabotage Blackwell. They’d neglect to make diagnosis cards for the patients on purpose to shake her confidence.

Blackwell was undeterred. Instead, she looked at their nastiness as an opportunity. "It meant I’d have to figure out what was wrong without the doctors’ help," she said later. "It pushed me way ahead!"

Blackwell sailed through her Geneva exam and received her diploma in 1849, prompting officials at the State Medical Association of New York to declare that "no more women" could be admitted to medical schools.

But now, as a new doctor, Blackwell had to find another internship. The only hospital that might accept her was in Paris. To make it easier, her teachers suggested she try to pass as a man to get a position there. She defied convention: "I’ll not go in disguise!" she said. "I’ll make my way as a women."

She analyzed the situation. Blackwell was accepted at La Maternite in Paris, the biggest maternity hospital in the world. There was one condition: She could do the work of a doctor, but she would not be called a doctor.

Her family argued against it, but Blackwell insisted. "I’ll see more of one part of medicine in the three months there than I’d see in 10 years anywhere else," she vowed.

An accident while she cared for an infected child caused her to lose the sight in her left eye. Blackwell had to stop working at La Maternite. Still, she wrote to hospitals, searching for a position. Although she’d been accepted at St. Bartholomew’s in London, officials said her injury prevented her from becoming a surgeon.

Yet Blackwell remained focused. "I have my health, brains and stubbornness. I’ll journey a different way," she said.

She decided to return to America. Although public reaction in the U.S. discouraged Blackwell from private practice, she figured out a way to draw less attention. She bought a house in New York City and opened it in 1857 as a small hospital for women and children.

Her family worried about money and thought her too ambitious. "Elizabeth should think smaller," they advised.

"Why think small?" Blackwell replied. "I know I can do it; the money can be found." She found support from Quakers and wealthy businessmen.

Blackwell added a feature to her New York Infirmary for Women and Children that no other hospital could claim: an outpatient department to take care of her typically poor patients after they went home. She also saw her hospital as a place where women who followed her lead and became doctors could work.

Three who did were Blackwell’s youngest sister, Emily; an idealistic woman named Marie Zakrzewska; and Rebecca Cole, the first black female doctor in the country.

Her hospital up and running, Blackwell went back to London for a time to try to persuade medical schools to open their doors to women.

She wrote, "I am glad that I and not another have to bear this pioneer work. I understand now why this life has never been lived before. I would like a little fun now and then. (My) life is altogether too sober."