Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell
"The idea of winning a doctor's degree gradually assumed the aspect of a great moral struggle, and the moral fight possessed immense attraction for me."[1]

February 3, 1821- May 31, 1910 (89 years old)

Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to become a licensed physician. She was born in England in 1821 to a family that advocated for abolition, church reform, and education of women. After her father passed away, Elizabeth became employed as a teacher in order to help her penniless family through the financial crisis of 1837[2]. She quickly realized that teaching, which was often just a pathway to marriage, was the only profession truly open to women. An interaction with a dying friend changed her entire life; the friend told Elizabeth that the agony of dying would have been lessened if the attending physician had been a female[3]. Elizabeth decided that she wanted to become a licensed physician, and she continued teaching while boarding in a physician’s home to acquire medical knowledge whenever she could. Despite widespread rejection she was accepted to Geneva Medical College in upstate New York. The school’s faculty opposed her acceptance, but since they couldn’t refuse a highly qualified woman, they referred her acceptance to the all-male student body. The students voted to accept Blackwell as a joke and did not expect her to accept her spot[4]. Upon her arrival, she was treated with a mixture of bewilderment, condemnation, and embarrassment, even from the wives of other doctors.
She went on to train in Europe before opening a small one-room clinic in New York City. She had difficulty opening her own practice, which led to a focus on educating her fellow physicians about the importance of hygienic practices. Elizabeth next chose to open a hospital in New York. This hospital, known at the time as the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, was noteworthy for providing care to those living in poverty and for employing women physicians. Elizabeth also opened The Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary, which was designated for educating women to become physicians[5]. Opening the college was necessary because the women trained in her hospital were unable to gain acceptance to any male medical colleges and she did not support the all-women colleges that existed. In addition, Elizabeth Blackwell helped to found the National Health Society.

Her health declined throughout her life, beginning with contracting “purulent opthalmia” from a patient at the age of thirty, which caused loss of sight in one eye and destroyed her hopes of being a surgeon. She gave up practicing medicine in the late 1870’s, although she campaigned for hygienic practice reform until her death in 1910. Blackwell wrote several books, including her autobiography entitled Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women in 1895[6]. Elizabeth provided inspiration and assistance to other women hoping to enter the male-dominated field of medicine, including her sister Emily and Dr. Marie Zakrzewska.

Challenge Discussion

Cultural Challenge

“If society will not admit of woman’s free development, then society must be remodeled.[7]”
Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell spent the entirety of her adult life fighting the cultural ill of gender discrimination within her chosen practice of medicine. Medicine, when it is used in the context of hospitals and other clinics, protects and promotes the common good. According to Drs. Merrill and Miller, “A person’s health is inseparable from, and foundational to, a person’s sense of ‘self’… When emergent or catastrophic injury or chronic disease assaults our bodies, our autonomy is compromised, and we are in dire need not only of attention to our physical needs, but also of communal support and reaffirmation of our interconnectedness and social worth… Ensuring that medical care is provided to those who need it fosters a sense of community and of security.[8]”

Through her fight against sexism in the medical community, Dr. Blackwell could be labeled a limited-scope feminist. The internal goods of feminism are equal rights and treatment of women, but Dr. Blackwell limited her feminist efforts to the profession of medicine. She ensured that her fellow woman physicians could be educated, employed, and respected within her hospital, but she did not join the larger suffragist movement.

Even when Dr. Blackwell was politically motivated, she was dismissed or her skills ignored because of her gender. She and her sister were both staunch abolitionists, but during the Civil War their only role was to train Union nurses[9]. It is an unambiguous fact that America’s bloodiest war could have benefitted from the skills of trained doctors like the Blackwells, regardless of their gender.
Dr. Blackwell’s perseverance in pursuing her medical degree did not go unnoticed; her leadership inspired several other women to secure their own education. Two years after Elizabeth’s graduation, Lydia Folger Fowler graduated from an otherwise all-male college in Rochester, NY. Graduating concurrently with Mrs. Fowler were two women; they matriculated through America’s first female medical school, which was founded by Quakers in Philadelphia the year after Dr. Blackwell’s licensure[10].

Personal Challenge

“A blank wall of social and professional antagonism faces the woman physician that forms a situation of singular and painful loneliness, leaving her without support, respect, or professional counsel[11].”

Dr. Blackwell’s personal challenge was overcoming the gender discrimination perpetuated by medical professionals throughout her career. This discrimination began with her entrance into medical school, where she was ostracized during lectures and even encouraged not to attend certain dissection labs due to the topics of reproductive organs and male anatomy[12]. These lessons were just as uncomfortable for her as for the male students, but she persevered and insisted that she should not be treated differently than her peers. Although she earned respect by the time she graduated from Geneva, Elizabeth then had to start building trust and respect all over again when she went to work in the hospitals of Europe. She was confined to working with midwives and nurses, even though her qualifications matched those of the male physicians.

She also encountered disappointment when she contracted purulent opthalmia from a newborn patient. It is a veneral disease that caused the loss of sight in her eye[13]. This setback forced Elizabeth to abandon her dreams of being a surgeon, but instead of giving up on the practice of medicine altogether she chose to focus her considerable talents on being a physician.

Elizabeth’s personal fight against sexism continued when she moved back to New York to begin her own practice. She had difficulty renting a room for her clinic, because many people associated a female doctor with an abortionist. She could not secure a job in any of the city hospitals, not even in the women’s’ wards. Eventually, she was able to enlist the help of some Quaker friends to open a small clinic aimed at treating poor women[14].

Standards of Excellence

“It is observation and comprehension, not sympathy, which will discover the kind of disease. It is knowledge, not sympathy, which can administer the right medicine; and though warm sympathetic natures, with knowledge, would make the best of all physicians, without sound scientific knowledge, they would be most unreliable and dangerous guides.”[15]
The standards of excellence for the practice of medicine are to correctly diagnose and successfully treat illnesses. Dr. Blackwell adhered to and advanced the standards of excellence within medicine through her advocacy for more hygienic practices. She wrote her thesis on the disease of typhus and theorized that it can be prevented with proper sanitation. Indeed, it was through an encounter with sexism that Elizabeth made her most notable observations on hygiene. During her time at hospitals in London and Paris after her graduation, she was often relegated to working with the midwives and nurses instead of her fellow physicians. Here, she began to take note of the benefits of preventative care and personal hygiene; at the same time, the male physicians were causing epidemics by failing to wash their hands between treating each of their patients. At the time, hygiene was not considered necessary for doctors to adhere to the standards of medicinal excellence. Dr. Blackwell’s research and work changed these standards, although she never moved outside of them and so continued to engage in the practice of medicine.

Choiceworthy Good

“It is not easy to be a pioneer- but oh, it is fascinating! I would not trade one moment, even the worst moment, for all the riches in the world[16].”
Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell could have chosen to remain in the profession of teaching, which is a noble practice with its own set of internal goods. Despite a preliminary squeamishness and the knowledge that she would be inevitably discriminated against, Elizabeth chose to accept her position at Geneva Medical College and endure the hardships of being a woman in a man’s profession in order to explore the internal goods of practicing medicine. In doing so, she exhibited the choiceworthy good of beneficence, or actions that promote the flourishing of others.

Practicing medicine benefits the recipient much more than the practitioner, which is what makes it a profession rife with internal goods. Doctors cannot practice medicine on themselves, so every time they are engaging in their practice, they are helping other people to flourish in health. Doctors heal sick people, and each person they cure contributes to society in some way, whether it is to society’s benefit or detriment. If none of these people were healed, society would be vastly different; thus, doctors are contributing to the stability of human society.

Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell exemplified the virtues of courage and justice throughout her career as a medical professional. The definition of courage is “steeling the will, reinforcing its resolutions, and turning the mind relentlessly to seek or face the truth; conquering fear.[17]” She faced widespread opposition and discouragement from peers, friends, professors, potential employers, and even strangers, and yet she never gave up on her goal of becoming a licensed physician. She knew that gender discrimination was morally wrong, and she would not allow it to continue. In addition, she provided other young women with the opportunity to fight sexism by licensing them as physicians.

The definition of justice is “respecting the human dignity of every individual regardless of their heritage, social class, race or intellectual or physical disability. It involves giving every individual an equal opportunity to flourish, reach potential and achieve success.[18]” Dr. Blackwell experienced injustice at the hands of her educators and fellow male physicians, but instead of accepting those injustices she rose above them and took steps to ensure that other women would not have to endure them. She exhibited justice in her medical practice, where she welcomed women and the poor to be treated regardless of their circumstance. She also demonstrated justice in her medical college, where she gave women the chance to flourish and succeed that men could easily find elsewhere. Although her college was an all-female institution, she was not unjust towards males because they could receive those opportunities in the overwhelming majority of medical colleges.

Like other women who promoted feminine ideals in the early nineteenth century, Elizabeth Blackwell was a true leader. She broke through barriers in the face of extreme adversity and gave other women the tools they needed to continue to transcend gender stereotypes.

Author: Katie Meloro

Works Cited

Blackwell, Elizabeth. Photograph. Britannica Online for Kids. Web. 4 November 2013. <http://kids.britannica.com/comptons/art-119759>.

“Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell.” U.S. National Library of Medicine. Web. 20 October 2013. <http://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/blackwell/index.html>.

“Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910).” National Women’s History Museum. Web. 1 November 2013. <http://www.nwhm.org/education-resources/biography/biographies/elizabeth-blackwell/>.

“Elizabeth Blackwell Quotes.” Successories. Web. 2 November 2013. <http://www.successories.com/iquote/author/1644/elizabeth-blackwell-quotes/2>.

Merrill, Thomas, and David Miller. United States. The President’s Council on Bioethics. Medical Care and the Common Good. 2008. Web. <http://bioethics.georgetown.edu/pcbe/background/medical_care_and_common_good.html>.

“’That Girl There is Doctor in Medicine’ Elizabeth Blackwell, America’s First Woman M.D.” U.S. National Library of Medicine. Web. 20 October 2013. <http://www.nlm.nih.gov/changingthefaceofmedicine/physicians/biography_35.html>.

Weissmann, Gerald. "’Women will not be what they are now’— Elizabeth Blackwell Breaks the Bonds."FASEB Journal. 21. (2007): n. page. Web. 4 November 2013.

[1] http://www.successories.com/iquote/author/1644/elizabeth-blackwell-quotes/2
[2] http://www.nwhm.org/education-resources/biography/biographies/elizabeth-blackwell/
[3] http://www.nlm.nih.gov/changingthefaceofmedicine/physicians/biography_35.html
[4] http://www.nwhm.org/education-resources/biography/biographies/elizabeth-blackwell/
[5] http://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/blackwell/career.html
[6] http://www.nlm.nih.gov/changingthefaceofmedicine/physicians/biography_35.html
[7] http://www.successories.com/iquote/author/1644/elizabeth-blackwell-quotes/2
[8] http://bioethics.georgetown.edu/pcbe/background/medical_care_and_common_good.html
[9] http://www.nwhm.org/education-resources/biography/biographies/elizabeth-blackwell/
[10] http://www.nwhm.org/education-resources/biography/biographies/elizabeth-blackwell/
[11] http://www.successories.com/iquote/author/1644/elizabeth-blackwell-quotes/2
[12] http://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/blackwell/college_life.html
[13] Weissmann, Gerald. "’Women will not be what they are now’— Elizabeth Blackwell Breaks the Bonds."FASEB Journal. 21. (2007): n. page. Web. 4 Nov. 2013.
[14] http://www.nwhm.org/education-resources/biography/biographies/elizabeth-blackwell/
[15] http://www.successories.com/iquote/author/1644/elizabeth-blackwell-quotes/2
[16] http://www.successories.com/iquote/author/1644/elizabeth-blackwell-quotes/2
[17] http://fa12phl301.providence.wikispaces.net/Practices%2C+Virtues%2C+Leadership%2C+%26+the+Common+Good
[18] http://fa12phl301.providence.wikispaces.net/Practices%2C+Virtues%2C+Leadership%2C+%26+the+Common+Good