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STEM Celebrity Spotlight: Elizabeth Blackwell

By Clare Schinzel


Every year, around 80,000 students take the MCAT in hopes of applying to medical school next year. It’s a strenuous test, with an even more grueling admission process waiting for students afterward. However, the end reward of achieving a stable career while helping people makes the process worthwhile for many by the end of it.

Unfortunately, this rigorous and rewarding career path wasn’t always open to everyone. While women acted as midwives, apothecaries, and even surgeons during the Middle Ages, by the time medicine became more formalized, women were excluded from the profession. Only by the late 20th century did women begin to form a big presence in the medical landscape. Finally, in 2019, females actually comprised the majority of first-year medical students. Breaking through the sexist barriers that prevented women from becoming physicians was no easy task, but we have Elizabeth Blackwell––the first female to earn a medical degree in the United States––to thank for becoming a trailblazer for female physicians everywhere.


Blackwell was born in Bristol, England on February 3, 1821. She was one of nine children of Hannah Lane and Samuel Blackwell. She was introduced to progressive movements early in life by her father’s Quaker and anti-slavery beliefs. The Blackwells moved to America in 1832 where Blackwell was inspired to learn medicine by a sick friend who claimed she would’ve been cured if she had had a female doctor.


Determined to become a doctor in a male-dominated landscape, Blackwell applied to many schools, only to be rejected each time. Finally, she was admitted to Geneva College in New York as a joke. Undeterred, Blackwell went to New York to pursue her dream. She faced severe discrimination during college. Professors made her sit apart from the other students during class and she was prohibited from participating in labs. Even townspeople mocked her for denying her “gender role.” During training in London and Paris hospitals, doctors only assigned her to be a midwife or a nurse. Blackwell eventually made them regret underestimating her by pointing out that male doctors were spreading an epidemic by failing to wash their hands between patients. Ultimately, Blackwell did earn the respect of her teachers and classmates and graduated top of her class in 1849.


Even with that impressive accolade, Blackwell had trouble finding patients in New York. Seeking help from her progressive friends, Blackwell was able to open a small women’s clinic, and eventually the New York Infirmary for Women and Children with her sister, Dr. Emily Blackwell, and other women doctors. Wanting to help more women, Blackwell opened a medical school in New York City for women. Eventually leaving her sister in charge of the school, Blackwell returned to London and became the professor of gynecology at the London School of Medicine for Women. Blackwell didn’t stop there: she helped found the National Health Society and later published books including an autobiography called Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women in 1895.


Today, women are beginning to make their mark in the medical field, and their presence is only expected to grow. Other minorities are breaking through barriers just like Blackwell, as well. The native, black, and Hispanic population of first-year medical students is healthily rising by a some percent each year, signaling the upcoming diversity of this coveted field. As inspiration, we can all look back to Blackwell’s resilience and determination to be a doctor as a model for what a physician should be––regardless of gender.


Works Cited

Heiser, Stuart. “The Majority of U.S. Medical Students Are Women, New Data Show.”

AAMC, 9 Dec. 2019, www.aamc.org/news-insights/press-releases/majority-us-

medical-students-are-women-new-data-show.

Jarral, Farrah. “No Scrubs: How Women Had to Fight to Become Doctors | Farrah

Jarral.” The Guardian, The Guardian, 25 Nov. 2017, www.theguardian.com/life

andstyle/2016/sep/26/no-scrubs-how-women-had-to-fight-to-become-

doctors.

Michals, Debra. “Elizabeth Blackwell.” National Women’s History Museum, National

Women’s History Museum, 2015, www.womenshistory.org/educationresources/

biographies/elizabeth-blackwell.



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