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Miss Elizabeth Blackwell, M.D.

From "Woman as Physician" by Rev. H. B. Elliott, 1868


From: "Woman As Physician" by Rev. H. B. Elliott, in Eminent women of the age being narratives of the lives and deeds of the most prominent women of the present generation. By James Parton, Horace Greeley, T. W. Higginson, J. S. C. Abbott, Prof. James M. Hoppin, William Winter, Theodore Tilton, Fanny Fern, Grace Greenwood, Mrs. E. C. Stanton, etc. 1868.

In the subject of the previous sketch, our attention was directed to one whom native tendencies and favoring circumstances so combined to lead to the chosen pursuit, that her engagement in it was, from childhood, almost a foregone conclusion; and it would have required a strong compulsion to divert her from it. In the lady whose name we now present, we observe very different elements of character, and different influences prompting to a similar course. Miss Blackwell is of English parentage, and was born at Bristol, England, in the year 1821. Her father moved to the United States in 1831, and first established himself in business at New York. In accordance with his circumstances and views, his children had at that time every advantage for a liberal education. Proving unsuccessful in his enterprises, he removed to Cincinnati, hoping there to retrieve his fortunes, but died in 1837, leaving his family among strangers to depend entirely upon their own efforts for support. Elizabeth, with well-matured mind, and already developing the energy which has since so thoroughly characterized her, though but seventeen years of age, opened a school, which she sustained satisfactorily several years.

An apparently slight occurrence directed her attention to the study of medicine. A female friend, afflicted with a distressing disease, expressed her keen regret that there was no one of her own sex to whom she and other like sufferers could resort for treatment. There were women who had assumed the medical title, but without authority, and with little claim to confidence. Most of them, also, were of disreputable character, and their practice not only unreliable, but largely criminal. Her friend, appreciating Miss Blackwell's abilities, and knowing that she had yet no settled aim in life, urged upon her the duty of devoting herself to this object, rescuing the title as applied to women from reproach, and meeting a want which multitudes painfully felt.

The suggestion was immediately repelled, as utterly repugnant to her tastes and habits. She had a peculiar and extreme aversion to anything connected with the sick-room, or with the human body in its infirmities. Even the ordinary physical sciences were uncongenial to her. Metaphysics and moral philosophy, the abstract sciences, accorded far more with her inclinations. Pressed upon her, however, as a question for conscientious consideration, and, with characteristic firmness, setting aside personal preferences, she soon decided that the call upon her was providential, and her duty plain. The opprobrium to be encountered and the difficulties to be surmounted only deepened her determination.

Writing for advice to six different physicians in different parts of the country, their invariable reply was, that the object, though desirable, was impracticable; "utterly impossible for a woman to obtain a medical education. The idea eccentric and utopian." Her reasoning from such counsel was brief, and her conclusion peculiar. "A desirable object, a good thing, to be done, said to be impossible. I will do it."

She at once commenced medical reading, under the direction of Dr. John Dixon, of Ashville, N. C., in whose family she was residing as governess. Removing the next year to Charleston, S. C., she supported herself by giving lessons in music, but continued to study, with regular instruction from Dr. S. H. Dixon, afterwards professor in the medical department of the New York University, and pursued it further under Drs. Allen and Warrington, of Philadelphia. She found the study deeply interesting, and followed it with ardor and thoroughness, while benevolence and singleness of purpose speedily overcame her aversion to the associations of disease.

Upon applying for admission to the medical schools of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, she was uniformly refused. From ten others the same answer was returned, until at Geneva the faculty submitted the question to the students, who unanimously voted for her reception, at the same time assuring her that nothing on their part should ever occur to wound her feelings while in attendance, -a pledge which they nobly kept. Entering, in 1846, she graduated in 1848, - the first woman who received the medical degree in the United States.

So violent, and so ignorant, too, was the opposition of her own sex, that during those two years no lady in Geneva would make her acquaintance; common civilities, even at the table, were denied her, and in the street she was deemed unworthy of recognition. Within the college walls she found nothing but friendliness and decorum; and on the evening, of public graduation the cordiality of the students in making way for her to receive her diploma, and pleasantly indicating their congratulations, was marked and respectful. The next morning (she was to leave town in the afternoon) her parlor was filled with ladies. Success had turned the tide. Doubtless, also, many, moved by the evident approval of her associates in study, were satisfied at last that her motives were honorable, and her abilities adequate to her work.

The same year, Miss Blackwell went to Europe, and entered as a student "La Maternité," at Paris, with special reference to obstetrics. She also studied in 1850 and 1851 at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, in London. In the autumn of 1851 she returned, and commenced practice in New York city. Here again she experienced difficulties which only an indomitable will and the consciousness of a lofty aim enabled her to meet. With no such facilities from extended acquaintance and gradual entrance upon the work as subsequently favored Mrs. Lozier, she found a "blank wall of social and professional antagonism facing the woman physician which formed a situation of singular loneliness, leaving her without support, respect, or counsel." The title had been appropriated by such a class, that the sign was too generally supposed to indicate either a charlatan or an agent of infamy, and it was almost impossible to find a respectable boarding-house upon which her name would be allowed to appear.

Notwithstanding all the hindrances, however, her testimonials and soon-proved qualifications gradually gained for her the confidence of all classes, the co-operation of physicians, and an extent of practice entirely satisfactory. The Quakers were first to receive her; and among them she has ever since maintained a most desirable position. Contrary to her own expectation, and to the usual impression also, her services have not been limited to, nor even chiefly required for, diseases peculiar to her own sex, but she is called and relied upon generally as the regular family physician; and in that capacity her relation to a wide circle of families is permanent.

In 1859 she again visited Europe, gave a course of lectures in London on the connection of women with medicine, and was registered as a member of the British Medical profession.

At about the time when Miss Blackwell established herself in New York, her sister Emily commenced the study, under Dr. John Davis, demonstrator at the Medical College of Cincinnati. In 1852 she entered the Rush Medical College, at Chicago, reading also with Dr. Daniel Brainerd, of that city, and spending the summer vacations in such attendance as was permitted her at Bellevue Hospital, New York, and graduated at the Cleveland College in February, 1854. That year and the two following she spent abroad, one year in Edinburgh, one in Paris, one in London; and returning in December, 1856, located in New York. We regret that our limits forbid a more extended reference to this lady, whose abilities, attainments, and personal excellences cause her to share the respect of the public and the calls of private practice equally with her sister. It has seemed necessary to make Elizabeth Blackwell, as the elder physician, and for some reasons the more prominent, the special subject of our notice. In our further statements, however, we shall find them so thoroughly identified in their professional sphere, that they must necessarily be named together.

The "New York Infirmary for Women and Children," was the product of their united thought and effort. It was incorporated in the winter of 1853, and opened in the spring of 1854 as a dispensary, regulated and attended by Dr. Elizabeth. In 1856, on the return of Dr. Emily from Europe, they associated with them temporarily, Dr. M. E. Zakrzewska, a Polish lady, enlarged their plans, took a house, and opened it, as a hospital, as well as a dispensary. The object was threefold, a charity for the poor, a resort for respectable patients desiring special treatment, and particularly a centre to female students for practical clinical study. The Boston and Philadelphia colleges had already been chartered, and sent forth a number of graduates; but there was then no hospital which their students could freely visit, nor was there any designed exclusively for female patients.

The New York Infirmary was therefore, for some years, the only woman's hospital in both these senses, and supplied an essential element in any full scheme of instruction. About thirty students have availed themselves of its advantages, by spending a year in daily attendance at its bedsides, and accompanying its visiting assistants into the homes of the poor. With an honorable list of consulting physicians, the treatment is yet entirely conducted by the Drs. Blackwell and their female associates. Up to the present time over fifty thousand patients have received prescriptions and personal care by this means; and nearly a thousand have been inmates of its wards. Every variety of operation connected with midwifery (except the Cesarean), has there been successfully performed by Dr. Emily Blackwell, as attending surgeon. Both the sisters took an active part in the organization and work of the "Ladies Central Relief Association," during the war; and their parlor lectures to nurses about to enter the service of the army were highly valued.

In the personal qualities as well as professional methods of the Drs. Blackwell, the intellectual element decidedly predominates. Clear judgment, close analysis, and steady purpose mark their treatment of cases which come under their charge. They are strenuous advocates of thorough scientific attainments on the part of women who would engage in the profession; and enter continual protests against short courses of study, and low standards of acquirement in institutions for that purpose. On this account, they have refused to co-operate with any which have been organized, perhaps exacting too much from those which are confessedly imperfect at the beginning, and laboring under unavoidable disadvantages.

Their influence, however, has thus been stimulating to all who are engaged in such efforts, "provoking them to good works." A paragraph in one of their lectures expresses their spirit. "It is observation and comprehension, not sympathy, which will discover the kind of disease. It is knowledge, not sympathy, which can administer the right medicine; and though warm sympathetic natures, with knowledge, would make the best of all physicians, without sound scientific knowledge, they would be most unreliable and dangerous guides."

They are also firm in their conviction of the expediency of mingling the sexes in all scholastic training, and have very reluctantly relinquished for the present, the hope of opening the ordinary colleges to female applicants. In their mode of practice they adopt the main features of the "regular" system, while refusing to be absolutely bound by any such limitations in their examination and use of remedies. On the whole, they furnish each as complete an instance as has come under our observation among women, of cool, dignified, self-poised character, scorning shams and artifices, resolutely, with disinterested motive, set on the attainment of worthy ends. In religious connection, they are Episcopalians, though, in theology as well as medicine, they seem to be independent searchers for truth.

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