Elizabeth Blackwell, “the first woman in the United States to earn a medical degree,” is the subject of a Google Doodle honoring what would have been her 197th birthday.
In its biography on Blackwell, Google described her as “an active champion of women’s rights, and an abolitionist,” saying that Elizabeth Blackwell “was nothing if not a pioneer.”
Her contributions to the medical profession extended beyond her own degree. “Elizabeth Blackwell championed the participation of women in the medical profession and ultimately opened her own medical college for women,” a biography of her on Womenshistory.org notes.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Elizabeth Blackwell Was an Immigrant From Bristol & Worked as a Teacher
Blackwell “grew up in Bristol and emigrated to the United States with her family, where she began her professional life as a teacher,” Google noted. Her family was initially well off, even affording private tutors for their children, but “financial reverses and the family’s liberal social and religious views prompted them to immigrate to the United States in the summer of 1832,” reports Brittanica.
Specifically, Elizabeth Blackwell “was born in Bristol, England in 1821, to Hannah Lane and Samuel Blackwell,” according to CFmedicine. She was influenced by her father’s empathy toward others and his social causes. “Both for financial reasons and because her father wanted to help abolish slavery, the family moved to America when Elizabeth was 11 years old. Her father died in 1838. As adults, his children campaigned for women’s rights and supported the anti-slavery movement,” the site reports.
Blackwell was also moved by the plight of others. “Early on, she asserted her moral convictions: when a teaching position in Kentucky exposed her to the brutality of slavery for the first time, she set up a Sunday school for slaves and became a staunch abolitionist,” Google reported.
2. Blackwell Became a Physician After the Death of a Friend
Blackwell authored a book called Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women, which was published in 1895. In it, she wrote that she did not immediately take to the medical field. She wrote that she “hated everything connected with the body, and could not bear the sight of a medical book… My favourite studies were history and metaphysics, and the very thought of dwelling on the physical structure of the body and its various ailments filled me with disgust.”
Her attitude toward the medical profession changed after she witnessed the suffering of a friend, however. According to Google, Blackwell shifted from teaching to medicine when she was traumatized by the death of a friend. “Blackwell believed a female physician might have lessened her friend’s suffering,” reports Google.
Blackwell was blind in one eye, which prevented her from becoming a surgeon. However, she achieved her dream of becoming a doctor, although the pathway was full of hurdles.
3. Elizabeth Blackwell Faced Discrimination, Once Being Told to Dress Like a Man
It wasn’t easy for a woman to become a doctor in that era. “She persisted through seemingly endless rejections from medical schools – at least once being told that she should dress as a man in order to gain admittance,” Google wrote. “Finally, she was accepted into the Geneva Medical College by a unanimous vote of the all-male student body. She went on to establish a women-governed infirmary, found two medical colleges for women, and mentor several physicians.”
She was 28-years-old when she received her diploma. She was let into medical school on a vote by the student body, although they didn’t take it seriously until she showed up, PBS reports.
According to Biography.com, the prejudice was so severe that the other students thought Blackwell’s attendance in medical school was a joke. “She studied independently with doctors before getting accepted in 1847 to Geneva Medical College in upstate New York. Her acceptance was deemed by the student body as an administrative practical joke,” the site noted.
4. Elizabeth Blackwell Created a Medical School for Women
Elizabeth Blackwell was a pioneer in several respects. In addition to being the first U.S. women to be awarded a medical degree, she “created a medical school for women in the late 1860s,” although she returned to private practice in England. She died on May 31, 1910, in Hastings, according to Biography.com.
“Elizabeth Blackwell set very high standards for admission, academic and clinical training, and certification for the school, which continued in operation for 31 years; she herself occupied the chair of hygiene,” Brittanica reports of the school.
5. Elizabeth Blackwell’s Siblings Were All Accomplished
The family was accomplished in many respects. “Blackwell’s famous relatives included brother Henry, a well-known abolitionist and women’s suffrage supporter who married women’s rights activist Lucy Stone; Emily Blackwell, who followed her sister into medicine; and sister-in-law Antoinette Brown Blackwell, the first ordained female minister in a mainstream Protestant denomination,” Womenshistory.org reports.
However, the family did not have it easy and, when the patriarch of the family died in America, the family was quite poor with Elizabeth turning to teaching to make do, the site reports.