As we celebrate September as “Women in Medicine Month,” ZeaMed honors all women physicians who have contributed phenomenally to medicine. These women have become an idol for thousands of other women in the world. It was indeed an arduous task for women to overcome the taboo and achieve their dreams in those days.

Such is the story of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, who became the first woman physician in the United States to hold a medical degree. Let us take you back 172 years when Blackwell received her medical degree. Did Elizabeth Blackwell succeed by overcoming these stumbling blocks?

An ill friend inspires Elizabeth to study medicine.

In the 1800s, when Elizabeth was a school teacher, she developed a strong urge to learn medicine. Despite being disinterested as a teacher, she had to work to support her family. Once her friend fell ill due to medical negligence. Elizabeth realized that if there had been a female physician, her friend would not have suffered that much. 

Those were the days when women were discouraged from studying these subjects. Male physicians could not even treat women as it was considered “unholy.” Therefore, Elizabeth decided that she must study medicine to help society, precisely women.

Elizabeth applies for medical schools.

Blackwell started applying for various medical schools, but her applications got rejected at all places. This was a sheer case of gender bias that happened not only in the US but around the globe.

Luckily, Geneva Medical College, currently the State University of New York Upstate Medical University, accepted her application. Thus, she received support from the noblemen of the college and became the first woman to secure admission to a medical college in 1847.

She finally received her medical degree and became the first woman in the USA to become a physician. Her graduating thesis was on typhus, and it was published later in the Buffalo Medical Journal.

Elizabeth Struggles in her further medical career

After receiving the degree, she went to Europe, where an array of obstacles were waiting for her. Many medical colleges and hospitals rejected her as she was a woman. The then orthodox society could never accept and value a woman being a physician.

She enrolled at “La Maternite,” which was a lying-in hospital. How unfortunate was she to be treated as a student midwife instead of a physician? However, Blackwell did not lose hope and continued with her struggle to establish herself.

Blackwell’s life and medical career had received a fatal blow when she contracted ophthalmia neonatorum. She was treating an infected child when she accidentally squirted the contaminated fluid into her own eyes. As a result, Blackwell had lost vision of her left eye, and she remained just a few inches away from becoming a surgeon.

Nevertheless, she enrolled herself at St. Bartholomew’s hospital and attended James Paget’s lectures. Then, after a short while, she again returned to New York, where she again met with challenges of being a woman physician.

Without giving up, she opened a dispensary along with a Polish woman who was also studying medicine. Blackwell’s sister, too, gained a medical degree and inspired many other women during their times. In addition, the Blackwell sister continued to serve during the American Civil war.

Humanitarian works of Elizabeth Blackwell

Blackwell started working on humanitarian grounds using her medical knowledge. She made considerable efforts against licentiousness and prostitution at that time. Prostitution had crept wildly into the society during the American Civil war, inviting several new diseases. Little did people know about such conditions and got heavily infected.

Elizabeth campaigned against the “Contagious Diseases Act” which she called to be pseudo legalization of prostitution. 

In association with Florence Nightingale in 1868, Blackwell worked to open a Women’s Medical College in England. She also took charge as a professor of gynecology at the London School of Medicine for Women.

Medical Publications

Elizabeth Blackwell’s medical publications are read, researched, and appreciated even today. After graduating with her thesis “The Causes and Treatment of Typhus or Ship Fever,” she went a long way in publishing other works.

Her emphasis on women’s education and her lecture- “Medicine as a Profession for Women,” is a remarkable journey into the profession. 

“The influence of Women in the profession of Medicine” is yet another highly appreciated article on women’s education.

The story of Elizabeth Blackwell as the first woman physician of America stands as an inspiration to the world, even today. Blackwell stands for enlightenment in women’s education and health as she teaches us the importance of women’s health. But, unfortunately, women tend to ignore their health, and it eventually affects them in the long run. 

We at ZeaMed continue to motivate women to take special care of their health by educating them about different health conditions. The gynecology team at ZeaMed works excellently in educating and improving women’s health conditions in the USA. We keep the dreams alive of those struggling women physicians who paved the way for the future generation. 

If you haven’t read our previous blog about the first women physicians of South Asia, click here. 

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