The study and practice of medicine is . . . but one means to . . . the true ennoblement of woman, the full harmonious development of her unknown nature . . .
As the nineteenth century dawned it became more and more difficult for women to be involved in the medical arts. The herbalists and midwives of the villages began to disappear as more and more people migrated to the cities. Dispensing of medical advice or treatment evolved into a male dominated profession. Through courage and determination Elizabeth Blackwell forced open the doors of medical training for women. These doors would never be closed again.
Elizabeth was a “guiding star…to rebellious women everywhere.” After years of frustration and effort, she became the first woman to receive a fully accredited medical degree. Why did she do it? The defining moment of her life came when a family friend was dying. Elizabeth went to visit her, and her friend confided her humiliation at having to be treated for such personal issues by a man. Something stirred inside Elizabeth, and her desire to be a physician was strongly attached to her compassion for this woman’s suffering.
After graduating from Geneva (now Hobart) College in 1849, she then went to Europe to study. When she returned she opened the first free clinic in New York City specifically for the medical needs of indigent women and children. Soon Elizabeth realized that this need was overwhelming. Her clinic was full and there weren’t enough hours in the day to treat everyone who needed her.
She closed her small clinic and opened the much larger New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. This was a hospital, not a clinic, and it had facilities for many more patients. Eventually the hospital became a training school for female medical and nursing students. It was a tremendous 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 fully fifty percent of medical students are female. Through perseverance and faith, this pioneering woman who once described herself as a “Christian physiologist” achieved radical change. She opened up a whole new world of healthcare for women and children