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24 September 2014

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You are in: Bristol > History > Historic Figures > The Bristol girl who became an American legend

The Bristol girl who became an American legend

Most Bristolians will probably never have heard of Elizabeth Blackwell. But this remarkable woman, born in Bristol in 1821, has played an incredible role in the history of modern medicine.

Elizabeth Blackwell - pic Glasgow Uni Archive

Sketch of Dr Blackwell c1859 - Glasgow Uni

For Blackwell was America's first female doctor, and the first woman ever to have her name placed on the British Medical Register.

A contemporary of Florence Nightingale, Blackwell was born into a wealthy Bristol family.

Her parents Samuel and Hannah Blackwell were the affluent owners of a sugar refinery in the city. Unusually for the time her father insisted she and her four sisters and four brothers were equally well educated.

But business did not go well for Samuel Blackwell, and after a series of money problems he decided to take his family to the New World where he hoped there would be new business opportunities.

Journey to America

After a grim seven week voyage to the Americas, 11-year-old Elizabeth and the rest of the Blackwell family settled in New York. But their financial affairs grew more precarious and they were forced to up-sticks to Cincinnati.

Geneva College c1840 copyright details below

Geneva College c1840 copyright details below.

Samuel died there the following year, and the family had to take in lodgers and teach local children from their home in order to make ends meet.

Although women of the day would usually spend their time trying to attract a husband, Blackwell instead became determined to study medicine.

After privately studying with male doctors who approved of her calling, she attempted to get accepted to medical school. Sixteen rejections later, at the age of 27, she finally gained admittance to the Geneva College in New York.

But her problems did not end there. Her fellow students were openly hostile to her and the women of the town thought her bad or mad and kept away.

Even when she gained her degree in 1849, the first ever woman to do so in America, she was still not accepted and could not find a job.

Blackwell statue at Geneva College copyright below

Blackwell statue at Geneva College copyright below

Hopes dashed

Instead she journeyed to Paris where she studied midwifery at La Maternite. But tragedy struck, and while treating a young child with an eye infection some pus accidentally splashed into her own eyes.

She later lost the sight in one eye, putting paid to the surgical career she had hoped to follow.

But she was determined to continue to practice medicine, and improve both the lot of women in her chosen field and the general lack of hygiene in the profession.

Returning to New York, Blackwell wrote and lectured about the importance of proper nutrition and sanitation. She adopted a young Irish orphan and found favour with the Quakers who began to come to her for treatment.

She established a clinic for poor women along with her sister Emily, who had also become a doctor. This clinic became the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children and still exists today as the New York Infirmary/ Beckman Downtown Hospital.

Register at Geneva College - copyright below

Original medical register at Geneva College

Killing patients

The new hospital's beds were full within a month, although the first couple of times a patient died mobs attacked the building convinced the "lady doctors were killing their patients."

Blackwell returned to England to further the women's cause there. She become the first woman to have her name on the British Medical Register and was a pioneer for British women hoping to become doctors.

She helped establish the National Health Society in 1871 and became a professor of gynaecology at the London School of Medicine for Women (now the Royal Free Hospital).

After a full life Elizabeth Blackwell, one of Bristol's most influential daughters, and an American legend, died in Hastings in 1910 at the grand age of 81.

A true pioneer and a great Bristolian.

Copyright details

Sketch of Dr Elizabeth Blackwell c1859 courtesy Glasgow University Archive Services.

Geneva College c1840; the original medical register at Geneva College naming Elizabeth Blackwell as a student and the bronze statue of Dr Blackwell in the grounds of Geneva College - all courtesy Archives/Warren Hunting Smith Library/Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Geneva, New York.

last updated: 11/03/2008 at 11:44
created: 26/09/2006

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