Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Intrepid Women: Elizabeth Blackwell, M.D.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Loretta reports:

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.


Undine said...

Interesting post, thanks. She was a woman who deserved to be remembered. I became curious about Elizabeth Blackwell ever since I wrote up for my blog (a few months back) a very strange story involving her sister Anna and Edgar Allan Poe. (A story that could be subtitled, "The Case of the Letter That Never Was.")

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Women like Elizabeth Blackwell are so inspiring, and genuine heroic.

Through one of those weird historical coincidences: there's another, earlier Elizabeth Blackwell who is also important in medical history.

No relation to this one by blood, but certainly in spirit. The earlier Elizabeth (1707-1758) was a Scottish botanical illustrator, and the co-author of "A Curious Herbal", a herbal of New World plants that served as a reference work for physicians. Her illustrations are beautiful, and the carefully documented uses for the various herbs are still in use today. Perhaps if she'd been born in a later century, she, too, would have been a physician in her own right (instead of married to one who was a first-class ne'er-do-well.)

Her story -- alas, it's a sad one -- is here:

"A Curious Herbal" is also part of the British LIbrary's amazing Online Gallery, Turning the Pages. Check it out here:

Julia Ergane said...

I am proud to say that I was well informed about those brave women who did outrageously wonderful things well before many people took an interest in women's history (very early 1960s when I was in grade school). I read biographies of both Elizabeth Blackwell the physician, Nellie Bly the journalist, and Hypatia of Alexandria, the mathemetician and philosopher. In fact, for a while I even considered going into medicine. However, maybe I really did in a way. I've had a number of careers; but, the one I loved best was being the director of library services and medical librarian for a large psychiatric hospital. I had to provide services and a collection for a post-doctorate (residency) programme in psychiatry which was accredited by the American Psychiatic Association.

Mme.Tresbeau said...

It's no wonder that so many women's health centers and clinics around the country are named after Elizabeth Blackwell. A courageous, persistent, intelligent woman.

LorettaChase said...

Undine, I tried to find the post on your blog, without success. Would you post a link?__Susan, that herbal is beautiful.___Julia, you were way ahead of me. I'm still discovering amazing women.___Mme. Tresbeau, she must have had extraordinary intestinal fortitude. We can all imagine what her daily life was like--in medical school for instance: being dismissed, harassed, patronized...and so on. Yes, hers is a profile in courage.

Undine said...

Loretta--here's the link to my blog post about Anna B. Her sister doesn't directly figure in the story (although, oddly, John Ingram initially got Anna confused with Elizabeth Blackwell--whom he apparently knew slightly.)

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