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THE FIRST FEMALE STUDENT

Elizabeth Blackwell

Amid the many distinguished male graduates of the 19th century was one woman.

In an era when the prevailing wisdom was that no woman could withstand the intellectual and emotional rigors of a medical education, Elizabeth Blackwell applied to and was rejected - or simply ignored - by 17 medical schools before being admitted to the Medical Institution of Geneva College in 1847.

The medical faculty, largely opposed to her admission but unwilling to take responsibility for the decision, decided to submit the matter to the students for a vote. The men of the College, perhaps as a joke, voted to admit her.

The point of the story, of course, is not so much how Blackwell's admission came about but what she did with it: she seized the opportunity with determination and ultimate success. She graduated two years later, on January 23, 1849, at the head of her class, the first woman doctor in the hemisphere.

A contemporary letter, describing the exercises, says that Elizabeth received her diploma from the hands of President Benjamin Hale and said, "Sir, by the help of the Most High, it shall be the effort of my life to shed honor on this diploma."

Blackwell went on to found the New York Infirmary for Women and Children and had a role in the creation of its medical college. She then returned to her native England and helped found the National Health Society and taught at England’s first college of medicine for women. She pioneered in preventive medicine and in the promotion of antisepsis and hygiene and was responsible for the first chair of hygiene at any medical college.

In 1958, at the 50th anniversary of the founding of William Smith College, the Elizabeth Blackwell Award was given to Gwendolyn Grant Mellon, medical missionary, founder of Hôpital Albert Schweitzer in Haiti.

In 1974, Hobart and William Smith joined with the United States Postal Service in holding first-day-of-issue ceremonies for an 18-cent stamp depicting “Elizabeth Blackwell: First Woman Physician.” Twenty years later, HWS dedicated a sculpture of Blackwell as a young woman, by Professor of Art A.E. Ted Aub, on the Hobart Quadrangle.

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