February 3, 1821 – May 31, 1910
Blackwell was born in Bristol, England. She was the third of nine children born to a sugar refiner, Samuel Blackwell, who could afford to give his many children an education. He believed that his daughters should get the same education as the boys so he had them tutored.
Elizabeth attended Geneva College in New York. She was accepted there – anecdotally because the faculty put it to a student vote, and the students thought her application was a hoax – and braved the prejudice of some of the professors and students to complete her training. She overcame taunts and prejudice from staff and students while attending. One anecdote relates that her anatomy instructor requested that she did not come to class on a certain day because the students would be dissecting a penis. She is said to have replied that if the instructor was upset by the fact that she wore a bonnet, she would be pleased to remove her conspicuous headgear and take a seat in the back of the room, but she refused to skip a lecture. On January 11, 1849, she became the first woman to earn a medical degree in the U.S. She graduated at the top of her class.
After she graduated, she went to Europe to study. When she got back to New York she opened the first free clinic specifically for the medical needs of indigent women and children. Her clinic was constantly full and there weren’t enough hours in the day to treat everyone who needed her. She realized this need was overwhelming so she closed her small clinic and opened the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. This was a hospital, not a clinic, and it had enough facilities for many more patients. The hospital became a training school for female medical and nursing students. It was a success and it exists to this day as part of the New York University Hospital System.
When Elizabeth first attempted to gain entry to medical schools she was ridiculed at best, reviled at worst. Now 50% of medical students are female. She opened up a whole new world of healthcare for women and children. Her female education guide, “The Moral Education of the Young”, was published in Spain as was her autobiography, “Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women”.