Saturday, February 03, 2007

First Woman Physician in the U.S.

Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman physician in the U.S., the sister of pioneer woman surgeon Emily Blackwell, and the founder of the London School of Medicine for Women, was born on this day in 1821 in Bristol, England.

The Blackwell family was chock full of progressives. Elizabeth's brothers Henry and Samuel were active opponents of slavery and supporters of women's rights; Harry married suffragist Lucy Stone, and Samuel married the first formally ordained woman minister in the U.S., Antoinette Brown. Indeed, they arrived in the U.S., in part, because their father's interests in reform had marred his commercial prospects in England. Unfortunately, he died when Elizabeth was 17, whereupon the Blackwells opened a school for girls to support themselves.

Elizabeth, who had received a decent education, taught at the school, but did not see teaching as her life's calling. Despite feeling tempted by the attentions of men, she made up her mind early that she would not marry -- and her attitudes about the way men alter the course of women's life and health would be a constant theme for her throughout her career. A woman friend dying of cervical cancer urged Blackwell to study medicine because the presence of a woman doctor (then unheard of in the U.S.) might have eased her worst suffering.

Blackwell was intrigued by the idea, but she was aware that to pursue medicine would be to take on a disapproving male medical establishment, as well as the unfavorable perception of women who dabbled in medicine, such as Madame Restell in New York City, a then-notorious backstreet abortionist. Nevertheless, she began to read medicine with family friends in the Carolinas and with progressive physicians in Philadelphia. She was rejected entrance to medical schools in Philadelphia and New York, and turned down the suggestion that she study in Europe or disguise herself as a man. Finally, in 1847, she was accepted at the Geneva Medical College (after a vote of the student body prankishly approved), and fought her way past the cynicism to earn the respect of her anatomy professor, who had initially decided to exclude her from lectures on the reproductive system until Blackwell convinced him otherwise.

While at Geneva, she made clinical studies in the wards of a Philadelphia poorhouse, where her observations of Irish immigrants suffering from typhus, and of women suffering from syphilis, awakened in Blackwell a conviction that hygiene and sanitation were critical aspects of medical practice, and that the moral dimensions of sexuality were also aspects of a patient which needed to be "treated."

After graduation, Blackwell went to Paris to study at La Maternite, but contracted opthalmia from an infant she was treating and left Europe blinded in one eye. Although her plans to become a surgeon were dashed, Elizabeth returned to New York City to open a general practice; her earliest attempts were foiled by landlords and a cold shoulder from her male colleagues, but after a period of public lecturing on women's health issues, she bought her own place and opened her practice in 1856, with her sister Emily (who had recently studied surgery in Edinburgh) and Marie Zakrzewska, a recent graduate of Western Reserve Medical School.

While Emily and Zakrewska ran the practice, Blackwell assumed the role of international spokesman for women's medicine, undertaking a critique of male-dominated medicine in writings and speeches which indicted "medical materialism" (the treatment of patients as objects) and "laboratory medicine" (which focused on certain afflictions in a specialized way). For Blackwell, preventive care and treatment of the whole patient -- techniques which emphasized nurturing, empathy and moral education, as well as an awareness of the social and political climates of disease -- were "female" ideals which needed to be advanced within the "masculine" milieu of the new experimental medicine. At times, her ideas kept her from recognizing progress (she resisted vaccination, for example), but Blackwell's ideas continue to live through the approaches of alternative medicine, and more recently have been given increased attention in formal medical education.

She settled permanently in England after 1869, providing inspiration to England's first generation of women physicians, such as Sophia Jex-Blake. She died on September 7, 1910 in Argyllshire, Scotland.

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