In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8th, we are launching a series entitled “Leaving a Legacy: Important Women in History,” which will feature notable women who influenced the world through their life’s work, immense courage or commitment to a cause. Over the coming weeks, we look forward to sharing the compelling stories of well-known (and some lesser-known) women in history.
When you do a little digging into Elizabeth Blackwell’s family tree, it’s not too surprising that she became the first woman to earn a degree from an American medical school. She comes from a pretty progressive family. Her father, an abolitionist, put the education of his daughters on par with that of his sons. Elizabeth’s brother Samuel married Antoinette Brown, the country’s first female ordained minister, and he himself was active in abolitionism and women’s rights. Another brother, Henry, was active in the same circles and married suffragist Lucy Stone.
Elizabeth’s sisters were no slouches either. While Elizabeth was the first to earn her medical degree, her sister Emily was not far behind and became the third woman in the U.S. to claim that honor. With Elizabeth, she worked to establish an infirmary for women and children in New York and trained women to become nurses during the Civil War. Their other siblings followed pursuits such as educator, lawyer, land agent, iron manufacturer, journalist, author, and artist.
The Blackwell patriarch died only six years after the family’s 1832 arrival in America, but the elder children, including Elizabeth, worked together to provide for the younger siblings. The enterprising family was praised in this 1849 newspaper biographical sketch, published after Elizabeth obtained her degree.
After a friend dying of uterine cancer encouraged her to take up medicine saying, “If I could have been treated by a lady doctor, my worst sufferings would have been spared me,” Elizabeth Blackwell took up the gauntlet, studying with several doctors while applying for admission to medical schools. While most schools wouldn’t consider her admission, Geneva College in upstate New York put the question in the hands of the student body, who, thinking it a joke, overwhelmingly voted to admit her. She graduated at the top of her class and in 1849 received her M.D.
Following her graduation, Elizabeth traveled to Europe, where she studied in London and Paris. In the 1851 census of England, she was enumerated in London as a “doctor of medicine from the United States of N. America.”
By 1856, she was back in the United States and with Dr. Maria Zakrzewska and her sister Emily, working to establish the New York Infirmary for Women and Children.
That same year, Elizabeth adopted an Irish orphan from the House of Refuge on Randall’s Island, named Katherine “Kitty” Barry. Kitty never married and stayed with her mother until Elizabeth’s death in 1910.
In 1859, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to appear in the Medical Register in the UK. She continued to pave the way for new female doctors in the UK, helping to establish the London School of Medicine for Women in 1874.
Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell died in 1910 after a fall in 1907 left her mentally and physically disabled. She is listed in the Directory of Deceased American Physicians, 1804-1929. In her lifetime, she not only broke the barrier to becoming a doctor, she also opened the door wide for many more women to come.