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Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910)

Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman doctor to graduate in the United States. She was a pioneer in women’s medical education and a campaigner for women’s rights. She was born in 1821 in Bristol, England, into a large and devout Quaker family. Her father Samuel Blackwell, a sugar refiner, believed in female education and was an active campaigner against slavery. In 1832 the family moved to the United States, settling in Cincinnati. Shortly afterwards Samuel died, and Elizabeth took up teaching in order to pay for medical school. She and her brothers and sisters were active in anti-slavery and the women’s right-to-vote campaign. She lived with a doctor, and read her way through his library.

She then studied with two other doctors privately, before enrolling at Geneva Medical College in New York - the only place to accept her. The faculty put her application to the vote, and the students (thinking it a joke) voted her in. She faced amazement and resentment from her male colleagues, but stuck to her purpose. In January 1849 she was awarded a degree, graduating top of her class.

After graduating she went to Paris and London to ‘walk the wards’ and gain hospital experience. Unable to get a post in American hospitals, Blackwell, her sister Emily and friend Dr Marie Zakrzewaska started their own hospital, the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. They trained nurses during the American Civil War and subsequently opened a women’s medical college at the infirmary in 1868.

Blackwell returned to England in 1869 and together with Florence Nightingale opened the Women’s Medical College. From 1872 she taught at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson’s New Hospital for Women and helped establish the London School of Medicine for Women in 1874. She was the second female doctor on the UK Medical Register (after Elizabeth Garrett Anderson) and retired at the age of 86. She died in England in 1910.

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M A Elston, ‘Elizabeth Blackwell’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (OUP, 2004-8)