"The Era of Reform" Speech
Physician, educator. Born on February 3, 1821, near Bristol, England. Elizabeth Blackwell was educated in her early years by private tutor. Samuel Blackwell, her father, moved the family to the United States in 1832. He became involved, as he had been in England, in social reform. His involvement with abolitionism led to a friendship with William Lloyd Garrison.
Samuel Blackwell's business ventures did not do well. He moved the family from New York to Jersey City and then to Cincinnati. Samuel died in Cincinnati, leaving the family without financial resources.
Elizabeth, her two older sisters Anna and Marian, and their mother opened a private school in Cincinnati to support the family. Younger sister Emily Blackwell became a teacher in the school. Elizabeth became interested, after initial repulsion, in the topic of medicine and particularly in the idea of becoming a woman physician, to meet the needs of women who would prefer to consult with a woman about health problems. Her family religious and social radicalism was probably also an influence on her decision. Elizabeth Blackwell said much later that she was also seeking a "barrier" to matrimony.
Elizabeth Blackwell went to Henderson, Kentucky, as a teacher, and then to North and South Carolina, where she taught school while reading medicine privately. She said later, "The idea of winning a doctor's degree gradually assumed the aspect of a great moral struggle, and the moral fight possessed immense attraction for me." And so in 1847 she began searching for a medical school that would admit her for a full course of study.
Elizabeth Blackwell was rejected by all the leading schools to which she applied, and almost all the other schools as well. When her application arrived at Geneva Medical College at Geneva, New York, the administration asked the students to decide whether to admit her or not. The students, reportedly believing it to be only a practical joke, endorsed her admission.
When they discovered that she was serious, both students and townspeople were horrified. It had created an uproar, She had few allies and was an outcast in Geneva. At first, she was even kept from classroom medical demonstrations, as inappropriate for a woman. But she held firm despite these challenges. Most students, however, became friendly, impressed by her ability and persistence.
Elizabeth Blackwell graduated first in her class in January, 1849, becoming thereby the first woman to graduate from medical school, the first woman doctor of medicine in the modern era.
She decided to pursue further study, and, after becoming a naturalized United States citizen, she left for England.
After a brief stay in England, Elizabeth entered training at the midwives course at La Maternite in Paris. While there, she suffered a serious eye infection which left her blind in one eye, and she abandoned her plan to become a surgeon.
From Paris she returned to England, and worked at St. Bartholomew's Hospital with Dr. James Paget. It was on this trip that she met and became friends with Florence Nightingale.
In 1851 Elizabeth returned to New York, where hospitals and dispensaries uniformly refused her association. She was even refused lodging and office space by landlords when she sought to set up a private practice, and she had to purchase a house in which to begin her practice. She established a clinic that was later named the New York Dispensary for Poor Women and Children in 1853.
She began to see women and children in her home, with help from her sister and fellow doctor Emily Blackwell. She was also joined by Dr. Marie Zakrzewska, an immigrant from Poland whom Elizabeth had encouraged in her medical education. A number of leading male physicians supported their clinic by acting as consulting physicians.
Having decided to avoid marriage, Elizabeth Blackwell nevertheless sought a family, and in 1854 adopted an orphan, Katharine Barry, known as Kitty. They