episode 2. Elizabeth Blackwell: Wait, THAT woman is a doctor?

Do YOU know how the first woman got into med school? Was it because of her brains? Looks? Luck? You can find out in our first biography episode, a deep dive into the life and times of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female to graduate from medical school in the United States. But this biography doesn’t just cover the incredible accomplishments of Dr. Blackwell. Oh no, we get into the ups and downs of her life and even some little moments that really bring this woman’s personality to life. Listen to hear more about how a little British girl moved to the US, got admitted to an all-male medical school, founded her own hospital and set the stage for decades of women to carry forward her legacy.

Feminist Corner

  • Social construction is the way that society defines certain things or ideas. For example, you’ll often hear gender is a social construct, which means that society chooses how gender is defined, it’s not concrete. It changes depending on who you’re around. 
  • So maybe some people believe gender is only two options, male or female, whereas other people see gender as more fluid or even something that can’t be labeled.

What was the social construction of gender at the time that Lizzy was alive (how were women viewed)? How do you think the social construction of gender impacted Lizzy’s story? 

At what point does one cross the line between working within a system to do your best and create change (i.e. Elizabeth dressing up as a man and studying medicine) versus challenging the system (i.e. her applying as a woman)?

How does Elizabeth Blackwell’s story, or at least aspects of it, resonate with women? What lessons can we take away from her story?

Listen to the episode, discuss these questions with friends and family, let us know what you think!

Show Notes:

  • This episode, we are getting into the life and times of Elizbeth Blackwell, M.D.
  • Who is Elizabeth Blackwell and what is she known for? 
    • She was the first woman to graduate from medical school and receive a medical degree in the US.
  • Why did we choose this woman as our topic for the episode?
    • Because the podcast is about and made by women in medicine, so we owe part of where we are today to Dr. Blackwell
    • But also because her story deserves to be told in all available spaces since they are often not told in places that we are used to seeing histories, for example, in high school textbooks
      • Her story is another example of a woman not being given her moment in the spotlight 
  • For the research
    • Used multiple sources but main one was her autobiography, Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women
    • Check it out in the sources! (first link listed below)
  • Early Life
    • Born February 3, 1821 in Bristol, England 
      • Parents: Hannah Lane and Samuel Blackwell
      • Third oldest of nine siblings
    • When Elizabeth is 11, her family moves to New York, USA 
      • Why? Because of political turmoil, the first cholera outbreak in England and their own desire to join the abolitionist movement in the US
    • The family moves to Cincinnati, OH when Elizabeth is 17 (1838)
      • Shortly after her father contracts bilious fever and passes away
      • The family opens a school in their home and Elizabeth becomes a teacher, to support their mother and other siblings
    • A few years later: Elizabeth moves to Kentucky after the family closes their school to work as a teacher there but soon moves back to OH
  • Journey to Medicine
    • A friend of Elizabeth passes away but before that, she tells Elizabeth that she would’ve preferred a woman physician because her suffering would’ve been less if she had had one
      • This pushed Elizabeth to consider medicine for the first time
    • Roadblocks:
      • No woman had been admitted to med school before
      • She needed more clinical experience because she had none
      • Her mentors were telling her she couldn’t do it and that she should dress as a man and study medicine
    • Elizabeth lives with a family friend Dr. Samuel Henry Dickson in Charleston, South Carolina to gain medical experience
      • Living with him she had access to a medical library, studied Greek and Latin and basically shadowed him for about two years.
    • She is admitted to Geneva Medical College in Geneva, NY at age 26
      • How? 
        • The faculty did not want to accept her but knew she was qualified so they had the students vote
        • The students took it as a joke and voted her in
    • Elizabeth graduates from med school on January 23, 1849 with her medical degree
  • With her M.D.
    • Elizabeth studies in Paris, France as La Maternité hospital 
      • She learns about women’s and children’s diseases alongside uneducated women from rural France
      • She contracts purulent opthalmia from a patient and loses her eye
    • Studies in London at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital for one year but returns to the U.S.
    • In 1851 at 30 years old, Elizabeth settles down in NYC
      • Devotes her career to promoting hygiene and preventive medicine among regular people and medical professionals but also promoting opportunities for women to become physicians
      • She had opened a free clinic for some time but in 1857 she closed it and opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children which was a full scale hospital with medical and surgical beds  run entirely by women and its purpose was to serve female patients and their children
        • New York Infirmary for Women and Children = NYU Downtown Hospital today
      • In 1858, she opened the “women’s medical college of the NY infirmary” with 15 students and 9 faculty
      • In 1859, she moved back to England and also became the first woman recognized by the Medical Register of the UK and lived there for the next 40 years
        • In England, she was a major activist who worked towards increasing female participation in medicine and on repealing the “Contagious Diseases Acts”, which were these acts that were written in response to STI breakouts that disproportionately targeted women
      • She passed away in 1910 from a stroke at the age of 90


Blackwell, E. (1895). Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women: Autobiographical Sketches. Retrieved from https://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/blackwell/pioneer/pioneer.html

Changing the Face of Medicine | ElizabethBlackwell. (2003, October 14). Retrieved May 27, 2020, from https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_35.html 

Elizabeth Blackwell – That girl there is a doctor of medicine. (2000, March 20). Retrieved May 27, 2020, from https://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/blackwell/index.html 

Purulent Ophthalmia. (n.d.) Medical Dictionary for the Health Professions and Nursing. (2012). Retrieved May 27 2020 from https://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/purulent+ophthalmia

Victorians: Daily Life. (n.d.). Retrieved May 27, 2020, from https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/learn/story-of-england/victorian/daily-life/

Like the episode? Send us your thoughts and questions!

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