Elizabeth Blackwell – pioneer in an ‘unsuitable’ profession

Since I make my living as a medical writer, a medical theme seemed a good idea this week. And Elizabeth Blackwell is one of the most inspirational women in medicine. Not only was she the first woman to receive a medical degree in the US, but also the first woman on the UK medical register. And all this at a time when women were considered ‘too feeble-minded to succeed in the demanding arena of academic medicine and too delicate to endure the physical requirements of clinical practice.’

Elizabeth was born in England in 1821 but her family emigrated to the US when she was eleven. Her father died in Ohio after a business failure in New York. To support the family, Elizabeth entered the ‘suitable’ profession of teaching, but didn’t enjoy it. When she was twenty-four, her dying friend suggested that she take up medicine, saying that told her that ‘the worst part of my illness is that I am being treated by a rough, uncaring man.’ Elizabeth took up the challenge of entering a profession closed to women. Luckily, she wasn’t short of persistence and inventiveness; she even tried dressing as a man to get into college. Twenty-nine medical schools rejected her before Geneva Medical School in New York eventually accepted her, but even they only accepted her as a joke. Male students ostracised her, teachers barred her from demonstrations and women sneered when they passed her on the street. Plenty in her position would have bowed under the pressure. But Elizabeth fought back in the best way she could – by graduating top of her class. And she had plenty of supporters – 20,000 people turned up to her graduation ceremony.

Sadly, Elizabeth’s problems didn’t end with her qualification. No hospitals would allow her to work, either in New York or Paris so she took a midwife’s qualification in Paris and, while treating a baby, contracted an infection that caused her to lose the sight in one eye. This meant that she had to give up her dream of becoming a surgeon. But she continued to inspire respect, working in England, where she made friends with and inspired Florence Nightingale and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, and then returning to the US. But she still faced discrimination at every turn, and was forced to practice privately, helping the poor.

Elizabeth never married, saying ‘I cannot find my other half here, but only about a sixth, which would not do.’ She wouldn’t settle for a man who wouldn’t accept her as an equal, and none did. But in 1854, while advising immigrants on the importance of sanitation, she adopted an Irish orphan called Kitty, who gave her companionship into old age.

During the American Civil War, Elizabeth organised an association that trained women in the war and helped develop the United States Sanitary commission. By now her younger sister had joined her in practising medicine and after the war, the two sisters established the women’s medical college in New York. But Elizabeth’s work still wasn’t done. She returned to England, where she helped establish the National Health Society. She ended her career as professor of gynaecology in London, and worked until she was eighty-six, halted only by a serious fall. She died three years later.

It goes without saying that Elizabeth is a hero to millions of women. Her persistence gave women opportunities they could hardly dream of. She’s received endless tributes, and I came across this particularly lovely one while in the Peak District last year – a well dressing in Taddington.

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