By Suzanne Norquist
Elizabeth Blackwell didn’t always want to be a doctor. In fact, she said she “...hated everything connected with the body, and could not bear the sight of a medical book...” However, when a dying friend said she wished she’d had a woman physician, Elizabeth changed her mind about medicine. She became the first woman to receive an M.D. degree in the United States.
She was born in England in 1821, the third of nine children, one of five sisters. Her family immigrated to the United States when she was eleven years old. Six years later, her father died, leaving the family broke. That’s when Elizabeth began a career as a teacher. Her mother and two sisters were also teachers.
When she decided to become a physician, she consulted two doctors whose families she had boarded with as a teacher. They allowed her to study medicine under them informally. Everyone told her it would be impossible for her to receive a formal education in the field. She accepted the challenge.
Twenty-nine medical schools rejected her application. A professor at one of the schools suggested she disguise herself as a man or go to Paris to study. She refused to do either.
Geneva Medical College in Geneva, New York accepted her application, believing it was a practical joke perpetrated by a rival college.
She faced numerous obstacles. Some professors forced her to sit separately and refused to allow her to participate in labs. Her attendance upset the townspeople, both women and men. Eventually, her fellow students accepted her. She later wrote, “I soon felt perfectly at home amongst my fellow students.”
In 1849, she graduated first in her class. Though she was the last one called up to receive her diploma, the crowd burst into applause. Her thesis on typhoid fever was published in the Buffalo Medical Journal, the first by a female student from the United States.
She worked in London and Paris for a couple of years. Unfortunately, when treating an infant with an eye infection, she accidentally spurted some contaminated solution into her own eye. She lost the eye and couldn’t work as a surgeon.
She returned to New York, believing she would face less discrimination since more medical schools were admitting women in the United States. Still, no one would hire her. She finally opened her own dispensary in a single rented room to serve the poor. It grew into a thriving practice and eventually became the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. One of her sisters, also a doctor, joined her. Their mission included providing positions for women physicians. During the Civil War, the Blackwell sisters trained nurses for Union hospitals.
In 1868, Elizabeth opened The Women’s Medical College in New York.
Soon after, she left her sister in charge and returned to London, where she became a gynecology professor at the new London School of Medicine for Women.
She passed away in 1910. Then, in 1974, she was honored with a commemorative stamp.
So, when someone tells me my dreams are impossible, I will remember Dr. Blackwell and press on.
“Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection
Four historical romances celebrating the arts of sewing and quilting.
Mending Sarah’s Heart by Suzanne Norquist
Rockledge, Colorado, 1884
Sarah seeks a quiet life as a seamstress. She doesn’t need anyone, especially her dead husband’s partner. If only the Emporium of Fashion would stop stealing her customers, and the local hoodlums would leave her sons alone. When she rejects her husband’s share of the mine, his partner Jack seeks to serve her through other means. But will his efforts only push her further away?
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Suzanne Norquist is the author of two novellas, “A Song for Rose” in A Bouquet of Brides Collection and “Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection. Everything fascinates her. She has worked as a chemist, professor, financial analyst, and even earned a doctorate in economics. Research feeds her curiosity, and she shares the adventure with her readers. She lives in New Mexico with her mining engineer husband and has two grown children. When not writing, she explores the mountains, hikes, and attends kickboxing class.
She authors a blog entitled, Ponderings of a BBQ Ph.D.