January 23 was a Tuesday morning when, in 1849, a woman named Elizabeth Blackwell climbed up onto the platform of the Presbyterian church in Geneva, New York. The President of Geneva Medical College stood there, holding a diploma out to her. When she took it from him, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman in U.S. history to get her medical degree.
Doctor of medicine
Elizabeth Blackwell had the highest grades in her class, but even getting her diploma wasn’t enough. Blackwell didn’t officially receive an MD until 1857 despite graduating years earlier. She didn’t let it stop her. Blackwell formed a private practice and worked for years as a doctor treating patients. Still, she wanted more, not just for herself but for women all over the world.
Along with her sister Emily Blackwell, Elizabeth founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. The facility was run by women and designed for women, and it was far ahead of its time. In 1868, the Blackwell sisters expanded the facility to include a women’s college.
The women’s college was specifically designed for the training of nurses and doctors, and it was the first such establishment of its kind in the U.S. In this remarkable way, Elizabeth Blackwell made it possible for other women to follow in her footsteps.
She didn’t stop at changing things in America, however. In 1869, Elizabeth Blackwell returned to England, where she was born. Here, she became a professor of gynecology at the London School of Medicine for Women in 1875.
Elizabeth Blackwell lived her entire life as a pioneer in medicine, decades before women in the U.S. or in England even had the right to vote for their own public officials.
Geneva Medical College, known today as Hobart College, was the only institution willing to accept Elizabeth Blackwell’s application to medical school. She was not allowed to practice in New York city hospitals, so she founded her own.
Elizabeth Blackwell stubbornly blazed a path for women everywhere to follow, and they did. In the late 2010s, there were more than 340,000 female doctors actively working in the U.S. They can thank Elizabeth for that.
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