Women’s History Month: March
Aviators, Educators, Inventors, Journalists, Nurses, Physicians, Scientists, and Soldiers
“History is herstory, too.” ~Anonymous
Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) was born in Bristol, England, third of nine children, to Samuel Blackwell, an industrialist, and his wife, Hannah Lane, and was taught at home by private tutors until age eleven, when her father lost his fortune and brought the family to America. Her dad, a Quaker lay preacher, reformer, and dissident, who championed women’s rights, abolition of slavery, and temperance, never settled down and never regained his wealth. By adulthood Elizabeth and her siblings had lived North and South, Mid-Atlantic and Midwest. Cincinnati, Ohio, was only one place to claim her.
To support herself Elizabeth became a schoolteacher, but she wanted to be a medical doctor. She was rejected many times over before entering what is now Hobart and William Smith College, Geneva, New York, where she graduated two years later (1849), top of her class. She was the first woman in the world to graduate from a medical college and earn a medical degree and the first female US physician. Elizabeth’s sister Emily (1854) and her German-born friend Maria Elizabeth Zakrzewska (1856) also earned MDs; they graduated from what is now Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio. Emily also studied in Edinburgh, London (under William Jenner), Paris, Berlin, and Dresden.
Despite academic achievement, Elizabeth was unable to find work in her field. Moreover, months after graduation (1849), as she was training as a midwife at La Maternité in Paris, she contracted an eye infection that cost her, her right eye and ended her hope of someday becoming a surgeon. Though often with nurses, and left to nothing more than midwifery, Elizabeth emphasized health, preventive care, and personal hygiene—a fuss most male physicians ignored, thereby causing epidemics by failing to wash their hands. Elizabeth, her sister Emily (also a doctor), and Maria Elizabeth Zakrzewska opened their own practice, New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children (1857). Zakrzewska stayed only about two years, then founded the New England Hospital for Women and Children (1862), the first hospital in Boston, the first with a school for nurses, and the second hospital in America to be run by female physicians and surgeons. Emily remained at the New York Infirmary.
Elizabeth never married but, at age thirty-three, adopted seven-year-old Katharine (Kitty) Barry, an American orphan, who became her companion. When the Civil War started, Elizabeth trained nurses for wartime hospital service and organized volunteers to collect and distribute medical supplies. After the war (1868), she added to her New York hospital a Women’s Medical College to train female physicians. The following year (1869), still a youthful forty-eight, Elizabeth left Emily—already doing all the surgery—in charge of the Infirmary and went back to England, where she wrote, lectured, and struggled for women’s rights.
Most of the family were socially active, campaigning for causes, or productively employed. Emily and Elizabeth were both physicians. Their brother Samuel married Antoinette Brown, the first ordained female minister of a major denomination; brother Henry married Lucy Stone, a prominent women’s rights activist; brother George was a wealthy landowner. Their sister Anna was artist, translator, and journalist; sister Sarah, writer and artist; sister Marianne, a schoolteacher.
Though Elizabeth Garrett Anderson is said to be the first Englishwoman to qualify as a UK physician and surgeon (never formerly trained or credentialed), co-founder (with Elizabeth Blackwell) of the first hospital staffed by women, first dean of a British medical school, first female MD in France, first woman in Britain to be elected to a school board, and first female UK mayor (Aldeburgh) and magistrate…Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman entered in the British Medical Register—viz, licensed to practice medicine. She established a successful medical practice in England, which led to the British National Health Society. She was appointed Chair of Gynecology at the London School of Medicine. At age eighty-six (1907), she retired, her health declined, she died of stroke and was buried in Scotland. She left behind several writings, including medical books, pamphlets, and autobiography. She is featured on a 1974 commemorative stamp.
“The challenge of history is to recover the past and introduce it to the present.” ~David Thelen
Copyright © 2012 Alexandra Lee