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Blackwell, Elizabethfree

  • M. A. Elston

Elizabeth Blackwell (1821–1910)

by Swaine

Blackwell, Elizabeth (1821–1910), physician, was born on 3 February 1821 at Counterslip Street, Bristol, the third daughter and the third of nine children of Samuel Blackwell (c.1790–1838), sugar refiner, and his wife, Hannah, daughter of Bristol jewellers (husband and wife) named Lane. Samuel Blackwell, an active Congregationalist and anti-slavery campaigner, was committed to giving his daughters as well as his sons full opportunity to develop their talents and abilities. Following financial problems with his business and the riots in Bristol in 1831, Samuel Blackwell, his children, including the eleven-year-old Elizabeth, and four unmarried sisters emigrated to New York, where he resumed both sugar refining and anti-slavery protest. More business difficulties took the family to Cincinnati in 1838 where Samuel Blackwell died suddenly, leaving his family poorly provided for. Elizabeth and her two elder sisters set up a school to support the family. In 1842 Elizabeth was appointed as head of a girls' school in Kentucky but soon left because of her loathing of slavery. For the next few years she continued to teach, although she disliked it, as the only means of supporting herself while saving for medical training. She had conceived the ambition of entering medicine about 1844, partly because of the suffering of an acquaintance whose modesty had prevented her consulting a male doctor until her uterine cancer was too advanced for any treatment; partly to dissociate the term 'female physician' from abortionists; and, according to her own autobiography, because she did not wish to become dependent on a man through marriage.

Finding a way of realizing this ambition however was not to be easy. Blackwell rejected advice to go to Paris as impractical and to disguise herself as a man as immoral. In 1847, after several years of private study and numerous rejections from medical schools, her application to the small, low-status medical school at Geneva in upstate New York was put to the students by the faculty, confident that a resounding rejection would result. The mischievous students, however, voted unanimously to admit her and then found themselves victims of their own practical joke when, in January 1849, Blackwell graduated MD above all 150 male students, an event that received widespread press coverage across the United States and in Great Britain. Blackwell then returned to Europe for further medical training. In May 1849 she enrolled at La Maternité, the leading school for midwives in Paris, as no Paris hospital would admit her as a doctor. Here Blackwell contracted purulent ophthalmia from a patient which left her blind in one eye and with only partial vision in the other, ending all hope of becoming a surgeon. She visited London where she was admitted as a doctor to all departments of St Bartholomew's Hospital, except that for women, and was much fêted within the social circles associated with the emerging women's movement. In 1850 Blackwell returned to New York and set up in private practice, opening a dispensary for poor women and children in 1853, which later developed into the New York Infirmary for Women, a hospital run by medical women for women. Here she was joined by some of the small but growing number of formally qualified medical women in the United States, including her younger sister Emily. She also lectured extensively on women's health and hygiene. A collection of her lectures was published in 1852 as The Laws of Life with Special Reference to the Physical Education of Girls.

In 1858 Blackwell revisited London where, under a clause in the 1858 Medical Act that recognized doctors with foreign degrees practising in Britain before 1858, she was able to have her name entered on the General Medical Council's register (1 January 1859), the only woman so entitled. During this visit, Blackwell gave public lectures, several of which were published, on the value of physiological and medical knowledge to women and on the work of medical women in America. Among those whom she influenced was the young Elizabeth Garrett (1836–1917) who, in 1863, and after her own protracted struggle, was to become the second registered medical woman in Britain. Back in New York in 1859, Blackwell focused her professional activities on developing the infirmary as a hospital providing both services for women patients and sound training for women medical students, although the outbreak of the civil war in 1861 saw her, as a committed emancipationist, active in the attempt to organize women's nursing services for the United States army troops. In 1868 the infirmary's medical school for women was formally opened, with instruction from women as far as was possible without compromising standards, with Elizabeth Blackwell as professor of hygiene and Emily Blackwell as professor of obstetrics and diseases of women. But the relationship between the two sisters became increasingly strained and in 1869 Blackwell decided to return to England where she lived until her death in 1910.

During this last phase of her life, living mainly in London or, from 1879, in Hastings, Blackwell was largely retired from professional medical practice, her income from investments in the United States making earning a living unnecessary. She did hold an appointment as consulting physician at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson's New Hospital for Women in Marylebone, London, and, when the London School of Medicine for Women formally opened in 1875, she was a member of the school's council and a lecturer in midwifery. But it was social reform more generally, particularly in relation to health and hygiene and the role of women in promoting these, that preoccupied her. Among the causes to which Blackwell lent her support, in public and through voluminous private correspondence, were the campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts in the 1870s and social and sexual purity in the 1880s. She was implacably opposed to animal experimentation and to the adoption of Pasteur's treatment of suspected rabies infections. She was interested in spiritualism and Christo-theosophy. In 1871 she had been among the founders of the National Health Society, which aimed to promote sanitary and hygiene instruction, particularly in schools, under the slogan 'Prevention is better than cure'. She published extensively on these topics, a collection of essays being reprinted in her two volumes of Essays in Medical Sociology in 1902, and also on sex education and morality, for example, in The Human Element in Sex, first published in 1880. Her autobiography, Opening the Medical Profession to Women, was published in 1895. Running through these social reform activities, her writing, and her entire professional career were two more or less constant commitments: her profound opposition to materialist medicine, to what she saw as an amoral scientific approach which explained ill health in terms of chance encounter with germs or physiological malfunctions alone rather than the result of failure to adhere to the essentially moral laws of healthy living; and her elevated views of women's role as guardians of social purity and hence health.

Blackwell propounded a case for women doctors not just on the liberal grounds of equal opportunity for women nor just as a means of ensuring women had access to medical care without compromising their modesty and delicacy. Rather, she argued that women doctors had an invaluable contribution to make to the whole of society through the exercise of their power of 'spiritual maternity' (E. Blackwell, Erroneous Method in Medical Education, 1891, 8). For her, a specifically feminine approach could safeguard the links between medicine and morality, emphasizing prevention through hygiene, in line with the sanitarian tradition of public health she adhered to. She fervently beseeched women doctors to reject the materialist tenets of germ theory and the (in her view) excessively interventionist medicine being practised by men. But she did so in the face of mounting evidence in the 1880s and 1890s that women medical students were being socialized into the same values as their male peers, even in the women's medical schools. Privately and, at times, publicly, Blackwell found herself increasingly at odds with the younger women who had followed in her footsteps, the American physician Mary Putnam Jacobi, for example, and, in Britain, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, neither of whom shared her abhorrence of animal experimentation or major abdominal surgery.

Blackwell's social reform activities brought her a wide range of close associates and friends and she retained close links with her extensive family on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1856 she adopted Kitty Barry, an orphan of Irish origin who was her companion for the rest of her life. In 1907 Blackwell sustained a fall from which she never fully recovered and she died on 31 May 1910 at her home, Rock House, Hastings, shortly after a stroke. She was buried in June in the churchyard at Kilmun on Holy Loch in the west of Scotland, a place where she had loved to spend holidays.


  • N. A. Sahli, ‘Elizabeth Blackwell, MD (1821–1910): a biography’, unpublished PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1974
  • E. Blackwell, Opening the medical profession to women: autobiographical sketches (1895)
  • The Lancet (11 June 1910), 1657–8
  • BMJ (18 June 1910), 1523–4
  • R. M. Morantz-Sanchez, Sympathy and science: women physicians in American medicine (1985)
  • E. M. Bell, Storming the citadel: the rise of the woman doctor (1953)
  • M. Forster, Significant sisters: the grassroots of active feminism, 1839–1939 (1984)
  • R. M. Morantz-Sanchez, ‘Feminism, professionalism and germs: the thought of Mary Putnam Jacobi and Elizabeth Blackwell’, American Quarterly, 34 (1982), 459–78


  • Col. U., MSS
  • Harvard U., Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, family MSS
  • L. Cong., family MSS
  • Medical College of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
  • Royal Free Hospital, London, medical school
  • Women's Library, London
  • Col. U., Rare Book and Manuscript Library, letters to Barbara Bodichon
  • NRA, priv. coll., letters to Sir Norman Moore


  • Swaine, photomechanical print, Wellcome L. [see illus.]
  • drawing (after pencil sketch by Comtesse de Charnacée, 1859), Royal Free Hospital Medical School, London
  • photograph, Medical College of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Archives and Special Collections on Women in Medicine
  • photographs, L. Cong., Blackwell family MSS
British Medical Journal