January 2016: Elizabeth Blackwell
Today, more than one-third of the doctors in the United States and nearly one-half of recent medical school graduates are women. Yet 167 years ago, there were no women doctors in the United States.
Young Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) had a dream. She wanted to be a doctor. She was told again and again that was “impossible” since there were no women doctors. One prominent physician told her she could only get into medical school if she disguised herself to look like a man.
None of this stopped Bessie (as she was known to friends and family) from pursuing her dream. In fact, it inspired her to rise to the challenge. First, she learned about medicine from a mentor willing to teach her. Then she began the process of applying to various medical schools. After receiving 28 rejections, she was accepted by Geneva Medical College, but only because it was believed her application was a joke. Normally, the teachers decided who would be accepted into the school. In the case of Miss Blackwell, they let the students decide. As a joke, the students voted “yes,” thinking she’d never show up.
Guess who showed up?
People were shocked. They thought she was insane to want to be a doctor.
Many of the professors and students—even the townspeople—criticized her and made fun of her for being audacious enough to want to do something only men had thus far done. They tried to stop her from attending some of the classes.
Elizabeth did not respond in kind to the bullying and the put downs. She ignored the hostile angry doubters and focused on her studies with quiet determination.
On January 23, 1849, 28-year-old Elizabeth Blackwell managed not only to graduate, but to graduate number one in her class, becoming the first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States. In the graduation ceremony, when Dean Dr. Charles Lee presented Blackwell her degree, he stood up and bowed to her.
Later Dr. Blackwell fought an uphill battle to open the first hospital staffed by women physicians and the first medical college to train women doctors. It was her dedication to creating a medical community for women, children, and the poor that ultimately distinguished her as a true medical pioneer.
Elizabeth Blackwell made history as a medical visionary because she had the confidence to believe in her dreams and the persistence to keep at them. When she died in 1910, there were over 7,000 women doctors in America.