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Dr. Blackwell - Our Founder

The First Female Physician in the United States

Known worldwide as the first woman to receive her degree as a Doctor of Medicine, Elizabeth Blackwell represents a historic moment in modern medicine and equal rights for women.

An ardent medical and social reformer, Dr. Blackwell founded the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children in 1857, which still exists today as New York Downtown Hospital. Dr. Blackwell also founded the National Health Society, was the first woman to be placed on the British Medical Register, and taught at England's first college of medicine for women. She pioneered in preventive medicine and in the promotion of antisepsis and hygiene in regard to infection control.

Elizabeth Blackwell was born in 1821 in Bristol, England and immigrated to America in 1832. She became interested in studying medicine after a friend who was dying of cancer said that her suffering would have been eased by the care of a competent female doctor. After studying medicine privately for two years, Dr. Blackwell applied to sixteen schools before Geneva College (now Hobart College) in upstate New York put her application to a student vote. Probably as a joke, the students agreed to the admission of this "upstart" female. Passing her final examinations at the head of the class, she was granted a medical degree on January 23, 1849.

After becoming a naturalized citizen of the United States, Dr. Blackwell traveled to Paris where she enrolled at La Maternite, a highly regarded midwifery school. While attending to a child infected with gonorrhea, Blackwell contracted a severe form of conjunctivitis which necessitated the removal of one of her eyes.

Unable to receive training at Parisian hospitals, Dr. Blackwell left France for London in October 1850 and continued her studies at St. Bartholomew's Hospital. The training she had received, in addition to her medical school studies, had clearly prepared Dr. Blackwell to enter private practice. However, no male doctor would even consider the idea of a female associate. Her younger sister Emily had been struggling to become a doctor in America, so Dr. Blackwell returned to the United States with the intention of setting up a joint practice. She found it extremely difficult to secure space for their practice; when a sympathizer finally allowed her to rent a room, all the other boarders promptly left, scandalized at having to share quarters with a lady doctor. Forced to rent her own house, Dr. Blackwell lived in the attic and used the main rooms for patients.

In 1853, Dr. Blackwell opened the one-room New York Dispensary for Poor Women and Children in a slum area near present-day Tompkins Square Park on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

However, Dr. Blackwell had grander plans: not just the enlargement of her clinic, but an actual hospital where female physicians could treat poor women and children.

On May 12, 1857, the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children was opened. The object was threefold, a charity for the poor, a resort for respectable patients desiring special treatment, and a centre for female medical students to study and practice clinically. Its beds were full within a month.

Staffed entirely by women for decades, The New York Infirmary for Women and Children was consistently listed by the College of Physicians and Surgeons, and by the American Medical Association as a grade "A" hospital.

Its income in 1927 was $170,000 of which only about ten per cent was gift contributions. It treated that year 32,000 cases in the dispensary, and over 2,500 in the hospital, of which one half were entirely free patients. The first annual report of the Infirmary asked the sum of $5,000 to "enlarge its operations and put it on a permanent basis."

In 1858, Dr. Blackwell took a year's leave of absence to further the cause of women's education in England. While in London, she lectured extensively and became the first woman to have her name entered in the British Medical Register. At the end of the year she returned to America, where the infirmary soon moved to larger quarters on 15th Street in Manhattan.

When the Civil War began, Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell set up the Woman's Central Association of Relief to train nurses for the conflict (the army at this time had no hospital units). This association soon became the celebrated United States Sanitary Aid Commission, officially appointed by President Lincoln.

Dr. Blackwell founded The Women's Medical College in 1868, adjacent to the New York Infirmary. It was the first school devoted entirely to the medical education of women and later became one of the first medical schools in America to mandate four years of study. The first black woman to become a doctor, Rebecca Cole, was one of the first graduates of the Women's Medical College.

Elizabeth Blackwell died in England on May 31, 1910. Due to scarce funds and the increasing acceptance of female students at more established universities, the Medical College had closed in 1899. The hospital she founded, however, continued to flourish for many decades and in 1979 merged with Beekman Downtown Hospital. Two years later, the hospital was relocated from Stuyvesant Square to 170 William Street and evolved into modern-day New York Downtown Hospital.

In May 2007, Downtown Hospital and the City of New York will recognize the 150th anniversary of Dr. Blackwell's founding of the New York Infirmary with a special celebration. The corner of Gold and Beekman Streets will be officially co-named “Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell Place” in honor of Dr. Blackwell's contributions to the fields of medicine, education, and equal rights. A permanent plaque in her honor will also be unveiled. In addition, The Elizabeth Blackwell Society has been created to ensure the continuation of Dr. Blackwell's mission through the programs and services of the hospital she helped to found 150 years ago, New York Downtown Hospital.

Today, New York Downtown Hospital proudly continues Dr. Blackwell's tradition of excellence in medical education and patient care, and of service to the underprivileged. The only hospital in Lower Manhattan, New York Downtown Hospital serves the area's diverse neighborhoods by offering a full range of inpatient and outpatient services, as well as community outreach and education. It is also a leader in the area of emergency preparedness and disaster response. New York Downtown Hospital is an affiliate of Weill Cornell Medical College and a member of the NewYork-Presbyterian Healthcare System.

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Wikipedia: Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell

Hobart & William Smith College website: Elizabeth Blackwell, MD; The First Female Medical Doctor Educated at Geneva Medical College

"Woman As Physician" by Rev. H. B. Elliott, in Eminent women of the age being narratives of the lives and deeds of the most prominent women of the present generation. By James Parton, Horace Greeley, T. W. Higginson, J. S. C. Abbott, Prof. James M. Hoppin, William Winter, Theodore Tilton, Fanny Fern, Grace Greenwood, Mrs. E. C. Stanton, etc. 1868.
"History of the New York Infirmary,” by Alice Duer Miller, in The Silver Bell publication issued for The Benefit of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children.

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