This Month In History
February 2017

This Month in NYS History – Elizabeth Blackwell, First Woman Physician in U.S., Born – February 3, 1821

Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in the United States to receive a medical degree.
Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in the United States to receive a medical degree.
The first woman in the United States to receive a medical degree, Elizabeth Blackwell, was a leading champion of women in the medical field both in New York State and abroad.

Born near Bristol, England on February 3, 1821, Elizabeth moved with her family to the United States in in 1832. Inspired to pursue medical school following a conversation with a friend who was terminally ill and desired to be treated by a woman, Blackwell applied to several medical schools throughout the country; none of which accepted women.

Upon receiving Blackwell’s application, Geneva Medical School, today known as Hobert and William Smith Colleges, in the Finger Lakes region of New York accepted her admission, believing it to be a practical joke.

During her studies at Geneva, Elizabeth was often faced with discrimination by her professors, forced to sit separately during lectures and excluded from labs. In January 1849, she graduated first in her class, becoming the first licensed female physician in the United States. She went on to study with Dr. James Paget, one of the founders of scientific medical pathology.

Initially, hospitals refused to hire her, and she was refused space by landlords to set up her own practice. Instead, she purchased a home and started her private practice. In 1853, she opened an outpatient facility in a poorer area of Manhattan with her sister, Emily. The sisters later incorporated the facility as the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, which evolved and is now the Lower Manhattan Hospital.

During the Civil War, Elizabeth and Emily helped in organizing the Women’s Central Association of Relief, which selected and trained nurses for war service. In November of 1868, Blackwell opened the Women’s Medical College at the infirmary in New York City, which taught women physicians for 31 years.

In 1869, Elizabeth moved to England and founded the London School of Medicine for Women. She also helped establish the National Health Society in 1871 – a forerunner of the British National Health System.

Blackwell died in Essex, England in 1910, leaving a global impact on women in the medical profession that began in a small town in New York.