In 1847, Elizabeth Blackwell wanted to go to medical school. Never mind that at the time women simply did not get medical degrees. The 26-year-old hadn’t planned to grow up to become a physician—rather, her interest in medicine was sparked by a personal encounter.
A dying female friend remarked to Blackwell that her trials would have
been made easier had there been a female doctor to care for her. The
comment struck a chord.
Drawn by a challenge, she decided to pursue a medical degree and,
after studying for a year under several physician friends, made her
She applied to 12 schools
along the Northeast, in addition to every medical program available in
New York and Philadelphia. In the end, only Dean Charles Lee of Geneva Medical College in western New York gave her application any real consideration—sort of. PBS’s Howard Markel explains:
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
And learn she did. Undeterred by her classmates’ and professors’ sometimes open animosity, Blackwell received
her medical degree on January 23, 1849. She went on to study obstetrics and pediatrics in Europe before returning to the United States to start her own practice in New York City.
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