On this day in medical history: Elizabeth Blackwell, first female physician in the US, is born

By Liz Meszaros, MDLinx
Published February 1, 2018

Key Takeaways

Born on February 3, 1821, near Bristol, England, the future Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell moved to Cincinnati, OH, in 1832 with her family for financial reasons. In 1838, her father Samuel Blackwell died, leaving the family penniless. Elizabeth became a teacher to support the family, with the help of her mother and two older sisters.

During her teaching career, she boarded with families of two Southern physicians who mentored her, and eventually helped her apply to all the medical schools in New York and Philadelphia.

At the time, there were very few medical colleges, and none accepted women. Most men trained as apprentices to experienced doctors. Women could apprentice and eventually become unlicensed physicians. Elizabeth reported that the impetus to become a doctor was given to her by a dying friend, who said her illness would have been better if she had had a female physician.

After numerous rejections, she was finally accepted by Geneva College in rural New York. Her acceptance was meant as a joke between the board members, but they let her enroll.

A hard road

During her medical school tenure, Elizabeth Blackwell faced many obstacles, including discrimination. She was often forced to sit separately at lectures or excluded from her labs. She was also frequently shunned by the local townspeople for daring to step out of her traditional role as a woman.

Despite such hardships, she graduated first in her class and on January 23, 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to obtain a medical degree in the United States. She continued her training at hospitals in in London and Paris, where she was frequently assigned to midwifery duties or nursing.

Dr. Blackwell strongly emphasized preventive care and personal hygiene. Unfortunately, she contracted “purulent ophthalmia” from a patient and lost the sight in one eye, ending her dream of becoming a surgeon.

Dr. Blackwell returned to New York City in 1851, and again faced discrimination. Because she was a female physician, few patients came to her and she had difficulty practicing in hospitals and clinics. She finally opened her own small clinic, and specialized in treating indigent women. In 1857, she founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children with her sister, Dr. Emily Blackwell, and a colleague, Dr. Marie Zakrzewska. They trained nurses for Union hospitals during the Civil War and provided work for female physicians.

In 1868, Dr. Blackwell opened a medical college in New York City. In 1869, she returned permanently to London and, in 1875, became a professor of gynecology at the newly established London School of Medicine for Women, where she remained from 1875 to 1907. In the late 1870s, Dr. Blackwell gave up practicing medicine, but continued to campaign for reform.

Dr. Blackwell helped found the National Health Society and published several books, including Medicine as a Profession for Women and Address on the Medical Education of Women, as well as an autobiography in 1895, Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women.

She died at her home in Hastings on May 31, 1910, at the age of 89, after forging a path for future generations of female physicians.

Equality for women

Throughout her life, Dr. Blackwell worked to bring equality for women to the field of medicine. The courage it required of her, in a time when women were still regarded as second-class citizens, was unfathomable. Her life’s work and dedication to equality for women in the practice of medicine have been honored many times over.

The Hobart and William Smith Colleges initiated the Elizabeth Blackwell Award in honor of Dr. Blackwell, to women who have demonstrated outstanding service to humanity. In 1949, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Dr. Blackwell’s graduation from medical college, Hobart and William Smith Colleges presented the Elizabeth Blackwell Centennial Award to 12 internationally famous female doctors. In 1958, the colleges created the Elizabeth Blackwell Award, which was first given to Gwendolyn Grant Mellon, a medical missionary and founder of the Hôpital Albert Schweitzer in Haiti.


Michals, D, ed. Elizabeth Blackwell. National Women's History Museum, Alexandria, VA. Accessed December 22, 2017.

National Institutes of Health. Changing the Face of Medicine: Elizabeth Blackwell. . https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_35.html Accessed December 22, 2017.

Encyclopedia of World Biography. Elizabeth Blackwell. http://www.notablebiographies.com/Be-Br/Blackwell-Elizabeth.html. Accessed December 22, 2017.

Hobart and William Smith Colleges. The Blackwell Award. http://www.hws.edu/about/blackwell.aspx. Accessed December 22, 2017.

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