Some years ago I wrote a novella (being reissued this May in an anthology) set in England in the late 1820s. The heroine of “The Mad Earl’s Bride” wanted to be a doctor. That was not going to happen. The medical profession was closed to women. Men had even moved into midwifery, traditionally a feminine occupation, and pushed women out. It would be a long time before women obstetricians/gynecologists (re-)appeared on the scene. There was a time not at all long ago when it was hard to find a woman doctor of any kind, even in a large city.
Which makes Elizabeth Blackwell’s achievement all the more impressive. She had tried teaching and it didn’t agree with her (oh, I can relate!). Then a dying friend inspired her to become a doctor. Unthinkable! Even her strongest supporters told her the only way she could get into medical school was to disguise herself as a man. I don’t doubt that this is a route a few other women took—we do know of women who got into the military that way. But imagine the complications. You have to stay in disguise all through school, and then you get a diploma in someone else’s name, which means you’re not legally a doctor??? So you pretend to be a man for the rest of your life??????
Not Elizabeth. She stuck to her guns, eventually got accepted into a small medical school, and in 1849 became the first woman to complete a course of study at a medical college and receive the M.D. degree. It wasn’t exactly smooth sailing after that. But hers is an amazing story of a dauntless woman. You can read all about it at the U.S. National Library of Medicine. The presentation, “That Girl There Is a Doctor of Medicine,”
includes pictures of many original documents.
Her story appears on Harvard University’s Women Working 1800-1930 as well. I’d also recommend a very interesting, late 19th century book, Our famous women: An authorized and complete record of the lives and deeds of eminent women of our times. Giving for the first time the life history of women who have won their way from poverty and obscurity to fame and glory...Superbly illustrated —and it is, actually. Dr. Blackwell’s story includes the dramatic illustration at right of an incident at medical school.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.