Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female medical doctor in the United States, is typically included among the small handful of women that almost always makes the lesson plan in your average American history class. And rightfully so… she was a true pioneer. But what we didn’t know was just how much of a badass she was, and that’s because the sanitized, “classoom” narrative we got spoon-fed wasn’t the whole story.
In a recent column for the PBS NewsHour, Dr. Howard Markel, the director of the Center for the History of Medicine, and the George E. Wantz Distinguished Professor of the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan, offered the full, unsanitized scoop on how Dr. Blackwell got on her history-making path, and what she had to do to navigate around its countless obstacles.
He explains that in October of 1847, Elizabeth’s medical future was uncertain. She had already been rejected at schools in Charleston, Philadelphia and New York, so matriculating into Geneva Medical College was her only chance of achieving her dream.
Dean Lee and his all male faculty were more than hesitant to make such a bold move as accepting a woman student. Consequently, Dr. Lee decided to put the matter up to a vote among the 150 men who made up the medical school’s student body. If one student voted “No,” Lee explained, Miss Blackwell would be barred from admission.
Apparently, the students thought the request was little more than a silly joke and voted unanimously to let her in; they were surprised, to say the least, when she arrived at the school ready to learn how to heal.
And her time there was daunting…
Too shy to ask questions of her fellow classmates or even her teachers, she figured out on her own where to purchase her books and how to study the rather arcane language of 19th century medicine.
Most medical students of this era were raucous and rude; it was not uncommon for crude jokes and jeers to be hurled at the lecturer, no matter what the subject. But with Miss Blackwell in the room, as the legend goes, her male classmates quieted down and immediately became more studious than those the Geneva faculty had taught in the past.
One of her greatest hurdles was the class in reproductive anatomy. The professor, James Webster, felt that the topic would be too “unrefined” for a woman’s “delicate sensibilities” and asked her to step out of the lecture hall. An impassioned Blackwell disagreed and somehow convinced Webster to let her stay, much to the support of her fellow students.
Undeterred by everything she faced and anything or anyone who stood in her way, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell went on to make history and do great things, particularly in gynecology and pediatrics – the two fields in which earned her greatest fame.
Read Dr. Markel’s fascinating profile of this extraordinary woman in its entirety here.