Elizabeth Blackwell was a pioneer in the medical field. As the first American woman to receive a medical degree as well as a strong supporter of education for women, Blackwell was able to overcome the hurdles of her time in order to pursue her dreams.
Born in England in 1821, Elizabeth was the third of nine children. Her family moved to the United States in the 1830s. Unfortunately, the next few years were full of tragedy. After her father’s business burned down, the family struggled to bring in money. When her father died suddenly in 1838, Elizabeth was forced to find ways to help support the family and pay off her father’s debt. In searching for a job, she realized that the only profession open to women was teaching – a profession that, at the time, was typically viewed only as a gateway to marriage.
She refused to accept that.
It wasn’t until Elizabeth met with a dying friend that she began to consider medicine. As they spoke, her friend confided her feelings that the pain of treatments may have been easier to deal with if her doctor had been a woman. They agreed that the ‘motherly instincts’ that women often possessed would enable them to empathize with their patients. Elizabeth began looking into becoming a physician.
But it wasn’t easy.
Money wasn’t the only obstacle she needed to overcome to pursue this goal. In 1845, when Elizabeth began chasing her dream, few believed women could be doctors. Most people she confided in tried to talk her down from her pursuit, while others told her the only way she could go to medical school would be by disguising herself as a man.
In 1847, she applied for Geneva Medical College in New York. Because her situation was unprecedented, the admissions office at the school didn’t know what to do – Elizabeth met the usual qualifications needed to get into the school, but a female student had never before attended the college. They decided to allow the students at the school to vote on the matter. The male students at the school believed Elizabeth’s application to be a joke, and voted to accept her, thinking she would never actually attend the school.
She refused to let their prejudice hold her back.
After a rocky adjustment period, Elizabeth managed to settle in well at the college. Professors believed the presence of a woman caused the male students to settle down and behave better in classes, and members of the faculty and fellow students encouraged her in her education. Despite this, Elizabeth felt isolated from her classmates and made few friends. She graduated first in her class in 1849, and chose to continue to study in Europe. In England, she managed to became the first female registered as a practicing physician. Just as in America, she experienced a great deal of discrimination due to her gender.
Elizabeth soon moved back to the United States, claiming that the discrimination against female physicians wasn’t quite as bad in New York. She opened a new hospital in New York, one that included a medical school geared specifically to female students. For the rest of her career, she fought for the inclusion of women in medical school and for social reform. She became friends with Florence Nightingale and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and wrote articles arguing for better education of women.
She achieved her dream despite the many obstacles.
Although she was forced to retire in the 1870s due to her failing health, Elizabeth continued to fight for the causes she believed in. She published an autobiography, Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women, and continued to inspire other women to pursue medicine.
Elizabeth Blackwell served as an inspiration to women everywhere.
And what about you?
Who will you inspire? What will you fight for?
What will you do to break boundaries?
What will be your HeartStory? Let us know in the comments below!