When Elizabeth Blackwell applied to Geneva Medical College in 1847, the faculty asked the students to vote on the idea of accepting a woman student. The result was a unanimous YES . . . but only because the students thought it was a joke. A woman doctor? Unthinkable.
Boy, were they surprised (and not too pleased) when Elizabeth showed up for class.
What made this shy woman quit her teaching job in North Carolina and head to upstate New York to break into the medical profession?
In a word: heartbreak.
When Elizabeth visited a dying friend, her friend shared how much she longed to have a “lady doctor” in charge of her care. She felt would be less embarrassing to talk to another woman, who would likely be more compassionate than a male doctor. Elizabeth also suffered a disappointment of the romantic kind, which led her to decide that marriage was not in her future. She would need a way to support herself; as a doctor, she could do that.
So after applying to—and being turned down by—numerous medical schools, she “accidentally” got into Geneva. The students, faculty, and patients were not what you’d call welcoming at first, but Elizabeth eventually won them over. In fact, it was noted that the other students behaved better when Elizabeth was in class. In 1849 she graduated at the top of her class and became the first woman in the United States to receive a medical degree. (A few years later her sister Emily would follow in her footsteps and become the third female American doctor.)
After graduation Elizabeth traveled to Europe for more training. Her plan was to be a surgeon but she had to give up on that dream when she was treating a baby who had an infection and accidentally squirted—let’s call it “infected matter”—into her own eye, leaving her blind in that eye. With a surgical career out of the question, Elizabeth went back to New York, only to find that no one wanted to hire a female doctor.
What would you do in that situation? Elizabeth set up her own practice and even founded her own hospital with her sister and another woman doctor. They named it the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children; these days it’s called Lower Manhattan Hospital.
Elizabeth would go on to establish a medical school for women in New York, become the first woman to have her name on the UK Medical Register, teach at the London School of Medicine for Women, write several books, and tirelessly promote the importance of good hygiene—something doctors of the time often ignored.
The next time you go to the doctor, spare a thought for Elizabeth Blackwell. She saw a need and decided to fill it, even when it seemed no one wanted her to.
What need have you seen that you think you could fill? You could be on the verge of making history yourself!