In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman in the U.S. to receive a medical degree.
Dr. Blackwell initially pursued teaching but according to the NIH was called to medicine when a dying friend suggested her illness would have been more bearable under the care of a woman. But how could she break into what was then an all-male profession?
Blackwell had no idea how to become a physician, so she consulted with several physicians known by her family. They told her it was a fine idea, but impossible; it was too expensive, and such education was not available to women. Yet Blackwell reasoned that if the idea were a good one, there must be some way to do it, and she was attracted by the challenge. She convinced two physician friends to let her read medicine with them for a year, and applied to all the medical schools in New York and Philadelphia. She also applied to twelve more schools in the northeast states and was accepted by Geneva Medical College in western New York state in 1847. The faculty, assuming that the all-male student body would never agree to a woman joining their ranks, allowed them to vote on her admission. As a joke, they voted “yes,” and she gained admittance, despite the reluctance of most students and faculty.
After losing sight in one eye due to an infection, Dr. Blackwell had to abandon her dream of becoming a surgeon. She set up a practice in New York, but discovered she was able to help more people when she established a dispensary for Manhattan’s poor, which eventually expanded to become the New York Infirmary for Women and Children.
Having studied some in London before starting her practice, Dr. Blackwell helped establish the city’s London School of Medicine for Women, where she taught gynecology.
Today marks Dr. Blackwell’s 195th birthday, and the first National Women Physician Day.