By Stanley Bowling, Manager, Content Digitization
In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman granted a medical degree in the United States. Her degree was awarded by Geneva College (now Hobart College) in New York (several medical colleges in Philadelphia rejected her application). In exploring primary source documents related to Dr. Blackwell’s achievement, two points are immediately apparent:
1) There is a wealth of uniquely insightful historical information available about this first woman doctor.
2) As is often the case with pioneers, Dr. Blackwell roused equal parts admiration and vitriol from her peers.
The speaker at her commencement noted that this was a unique event in history, and that Dr. Blackwell had attained it despite almost “insurmountable” odds:
Such an instance of self-sacrificing devotion to science; of perseverance under difficulties and obstacles next to insurmountable; of unremitting, unrelaxing toil, in pursuit of that knowledge so important to and yet so rarely possessed by her sex – and that, too, for the purpose of mitigating human misery, relieving the sick, and extending her sphere of usefulness in the world – this, I say, deserves, as it will receive, the heartfelt approbation of every generous and humane mind. This event will stand forth all future time, as a memorable example of what woman can undertake, and accomplish, too, when stimulated by the lore of science, and a noble spirit of philanthropy.
But, The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal observed the passing of this event as a silly rather than a significant event: “a detailed account of the ceremonies, or which might more properly be called the farce, enacted at the Geneva Medical College by conferring the degree of M.D. upon a Miss Black.”
This article went on to include important “intuitive information” arguing that Ms. Blackwell’s ambitions and achievements were a disruption to the very order of nature:
Hitherto an intuitive sense of propriety has induced all civilized nations to regard the professions of law, medicine and divinity as masculine duties, and by universal acceptation of both sexes, the sterner offices and responsibilities incident to these vocations have been consistently most compatible with the physical and mental constitution of the male sex. Woman was obviously designed to move in another sphere, to discharge other duties, not less important, not less honorable, not less angelic, but more refined, more delicate.
Some publications, such as the Detroit Free Press, noted that Dr. Blackwell graduated with “high honors” and that she had been “attending faithfully to every point required of candidates for the honor” indicating that she was able to complete the same requirements as the 18 “young gentlemen” receiving medical degrees that same day.
While Dr. Blackwell went on to a long career in medicine, upon her return to her native England, she initially struggled in her practice, as noted in Blackwood’s Edinburgh magazine:
‘Well, sir, in 1849, Miss Elizabeth Blackwell fought the good fight in the United States, and had her troubles; because the States were not so civilized then as now. She graduated Doctor at Geneva in the State of New York.
‘She was practicing in England in 1858, and demanded her place on the register. She is an Englishwoman by birth; but she is an English M.D. only through America having more brains than Britain.’
Eventually, laws and society evolved. Dr. Blackwell joined the newly formed London School of Medicine for Women to train doctors in a specialty that she helped found: gynecology.
The span of various resources covering Dr. Blackwell’s history extends beyond ProQuest’s Historical Newspapers and Historical Periodicals database. ProQuest resources also encompass detailed references to Dr. Blackwell in the comprehensive ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Global database, as well History Vault, which includes rich primary source materials, including high-resolution scans of personal documents, such as one by her niece where she acknowledged:
I feel that we should understand and emphasize the divine inspiration which impelled my aunt, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, into her difficult career; and it was this in-pouring power which sustained her through what would otherwise have been too inhibiting conditions.
History Vault also includes documents related to Dr. Blackwell in many of the Women’s Studies modules, including more contemporary recognition of Dr. Blackwell’s legacy. For example, the Women’s Action Alliance module includes a scan of a pamphlet from a mid-west health clinic that was named in her honor in 1970.
Over the decades, Dr. Blackwell started to be proven in ways nobody at that graduation ceremony in 1849 could have anticipated: “Don’t want to die before your time?” wondered the December 20, 1916 headline of the Palm Springs Desert Sun. “Try a female doctor,” the article the concluded.
Doctress in medicine.(1849, Feb 07). The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal (1828-1851), 40, 25.
The Late Medical Degree to a Female.(1849, Feb 21). The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal (1828-1851), 40, 3.
A Woman-Hater. Blackwood’s Edinburgh magazine; Nov 1876; 120, 733.
Advertisement. Examiner; Mar 20, 1875; 3503, 225.
A Novel Circumstance. Feb 24, 1849. Detroit Free Press (1848-1851), pg 2.
Ray, J. M. B. (1992). Women and men in American medicine, 1849-1925: Autobiographies as evidence. (Order No. 9239340, The University of Texas at Austin). ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 518
Women's Studies Manuscript Collections from The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Series 1: Woman's Suffrage, Part E: The Midwest and Far West
Women's Action Alliance, Part 8: Library, Publications, and Photographs, 1972-1995