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Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell (1821–1910)

Illustration of an incident in the operating room during Elizabeth Blackwell's medical school education, in Our Famous Women, 1884.
Illustration of an incident in the operating room
during Elizabeth Blackwell's medical school
education, in Our Famous Women (1884).

Elizabeth Blackwell, born in Britain, was the first woman in the United States to be awarded the MD degree. Many 19th-century physicians, including a few women, practiced without a degree, but Elizabeth Blackwell wished to attain full professional status. She was rejected by all the major medical schools in the nation because of her gender. Her application to Geneva Medical School (now Hobart & William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York) was referred to the student body. They accepted her with great hilarity in the belief that it was a spoof perpetrated by a rival school.

Working with quiet determination, she turned aside the hostility of the professors, students, and townspeople, earning her medical degree in 1849. Blackwell completed her medical education in Europe, but faced additional difficulties in setting up her practice when she returned to New York. In 1857, barred from city hospitals, she was joined by her sister Dr. Emily Blackwell and Dr. Marie Zakrzewska and founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. In 1868 she founded a Women's Medical College in New York City to train other women physicians.

The educational standards that Blackwell followed at the Women's Medical College were higher than those in place in contemporary all-male medical schools. In particular, her courses emphasized the importance of proper sanitation and hygiene to prevent diseases. She returned to Britain in 1869 and spent the rest of her life there, working to expand medical opportunities for women as she had in America.

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