Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Blackwell, Elizabeth

BLACKWELL, ELIZABETH (1821–1910), the first woman doctor of medicine, born at Counterslip, Bristol, on 3 Feb. 1821, was third daughter of Samuel Blackwell, a Bristol sugar refiner. The father, a well-to-do Independent, emigrated with seven children in August 1832 to New York. Here Elizabeth and her sisters continued their education and became intimate with William Lloyd Garrison and other anti-slavery friends. When Elizabeth was seventeen they removed to Cincinnati, where her father died suddenly, leaving his family of nine unprovided for. In order to support their mother and younger brothers, Elizabeth and her two sisters started a day and boarding school. They joined the Church of England, and became enthusiastic politicians and keen supporters of the movement for a wider education of women. They were intimate with Dr. Charming and studied the writings of Emerson, Fourier, and Carlyle. In 1842 the school was relinquished. Elizabeth became head of a girls' school in Western Kentucky, which she left after a term owing to her dislike of slavery. Resolving to become a doctor in spite of the discouragement of friends, she studied medicine privately while continuing to teach in North Carolina and in Charleston. After three years she vainly applied for admission to medical schools at Philadelphia and in New York. In October 1847 she formally applied for entry to the medical class at a small university town, Geneva, in Western New York State. The entire class, on the invitation of the faculty, unanimously resolved that 'every branch of scientific education should be open to all.' Outside her class she was regarded as 'either mad or bad.' She refused to assent, save by the wish of the class, to the professor's request to absent herself from a particular dissection or demonstration. No further obstacle was offered to her pursuit of the medical course. She graduated M.D. (as 'Domina' at Geneva, N.Y.) in January 1849, the first woman to be admitted to the degree (cf. gratulatory verses to 'Doctrix Blackwell,' 'An M.D. in a Gown,' in Punch (1849), xvi. 226).

In the following April she came to England, was courteously received by the profession on the whole, and shown over hospitals in Birmingham and London. In May, with 'a very slender purse and few introductions of value,' she reached Paris, and on 30 June entered La Maternite, a school for midwives, determined to become an obstetrician. After six months' hard work she contracted purulent ophthalmia from a patient and lost the sight of one eye. Thus obliged to abandon her hope of becoming a surgeon, she, on returning to London, obtained (through her cousin, Kenyon Blackwell) from James (afterwards Sir James) Paget, dean of St. Bartholomew's Hospital, permission to study there. She was admitted to every department except that of women's and children's diseases, and received the congratulations of Mrs. Jameson, Lady (Noel) Byron, Miss Rayner (Mdme. Belloc), Miss Leigh Smith (Madame Bodichon), the Herschells, Faraday, and Florence Nightingale.

Meanwhile her sister Emily was studying for a doctor at Cleveland, Ohio, and in 1854 acted as assistant to Sir James Simpson [q. v.] in Edinburgh, but declined an urgent request to go to the Crimea.

Elizabeth went back to America in 1850, and was refused the post of physician to the women's department of a dispensary in New York. She spent her leisure in preparing some excellent lectures on the physical education of girls ('Laws of Life,' New York, 1852). In 1853 she opened a dispensary of her own, which was incorporated in 1854 as an institution of women physicians for the poor, and developed into the New York Infirmary and College for Women. Joined in 1856 by her sister Emily, who had now also qualified at Cleveland, and by Marie Zackrzewska (a Cleveland student in whose education she had taken much interest and the third woman to qualify), she opened in New York in May 1857 a hospital entirely conducted by women. Opposition was great, but the quakers of New York gave valuable support from the first. In 1858 Elizabeth revisited England and gave lectures at the Marylebone Literary Institution on the value of physiological and medical knowledge to women and on the medical work already done in America. Liverpool, Manchester, and Birmingham welcomed her, and she issued an English edition of 'Laws of Life' (1859; 3rd edit. 1871). A proposal was made to establish a hospital for women's diseases, to which the Comtesse de Noailles, the Hon. Russell Gurney, and others contributed handsomely. Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell's name was placed upon the British medical register on 1 Jan. 1859, ten years after she had qualified.

Again in America, Elizabeth joined her sister in a rapidly growing hospital practice. Students came to them from Philadelphia. At the outbreak of the American civil war they established the Ladies Sanitary Aid Institute and the National Sanitary Aid Association, and organised a plan for selecting, and training for the field, nurses whose services did much to win sympathy for the entire movement. In 1865 the trustees of the infirmary obtained a charter. The Blackwells would have preferred to secure the benefits of joint medical instruction, but, failing this, they organised a full course of college instruction, with hygiene as one of the principal chairs, an independent examination board, and a four years course of study. Elizabeth delivered the opening address on 2 Nov. 1868, and held the first professorship of hygiene. Dr Sophia Jex-Blake (d. 1912) was among her first students. In twenty years free and equal entrance of women into the profession of medicine was secured in America.

Elizabeth returned to England with a view to the same end. She settled in Jurwood Place, Marylebone, where in 1871, a drawing-room meeting, the National Health Society was formed. She lectured the Working Women's College on 'How to keep a Household in Health' (published 1870), and on 'The Religion of Health' 3rd edit. 1889) to the Sunday Lecture Society, but in 1873 her health gave way and she travelled abroad. At the London School of Medicine for Women, opened in 1875, she accepted the chair of gynaecology, he took an active part in the agitation against the Contagious Diseases Act. During a winter at Bordighera she wrote 'The Moral Education of the Young considered under Medical and Social Aspects,' which under its original title, Counsel to Parents on the Moral Education of their Children,' was refused by twelve publishers, and at last appeared through the intervention of Jane Ellice Hopkins [q. v. Suppl. II] (2nd edit. 1879). She also contributed an article on 'Medicine and Morality' to the 'Modern Review' (1881). Miss Blackwell delivered the opening address at the London School of Medicine for Women in October 1889, and revisited America in 1906; but an accident in Scotland enfeebled her in 1907, and she died at her home, Rock House, Hastings, on 31 May 1910, in her ninetieth year. She was buried at Kilmun, Argyll. A portrait from a sketch by the Comtesse de Charnacee, Paris, 1859, hangs at the London School of Medicine for Women.

Her other writings are:

  1. 'The Human Element in Sex,' 1884; new edit. 1894.
  2. 'Purchase of Women; a Great Economic Blunder,' 1887.
  3. 'Decay of Municipal Representative Government,' 1888.
  4. 'Influence of Women in Medicine,' 1889.
  5. 'Erroneous Method in Medical Education,' 1891.
  6. 'Christian Duty in Regard to Vice,' 1891.
  7. 'Christianity in Medicine,' 1891.
  8. 'Why Hygienic Congresses Fail,' 1892.
  9. 'Pioneer Work. Auto-biographical Sketches,' 1895.
  10. 'Scientific Method in Biology,' 1898.

Many of these were republished with additions in 'Essays in Medical Sociology' (2 vols. 1902).

[The Times, 2 June 1910; Medical Times, May and June 1849, pp. 560, 613, 633 ('Domina Blackwell'); Mesnard, Miss E. Blackwell et les femmes medecins, 1889; Miss Blackwell's works; Hays, Women of the Day, 1885.]

C. F. S.