Americans in Paris: Elizabeth Blackwell, 1st Woman in America Awarded a Medical Degree

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Americans in Paris: Elizabeth Blackwell, 1st Woman in America Awarded a Medical Degree
In the early 19th century hundreds of Americans were inspired by a wave of enterprising, progressive and talented people who migrated to Paris, the cultural capital of Europe, then comprising four times the population of New York City. Most were well educated, reasonably well off and most, though not all, were young, single men. Arriving on the heels of the 1832 cholera epidemic, they found Paris a city of startling contrasts– wretched housing, appalling poverty and an ancient public hygiene system that carried raw sewage into gutters running down the middle of streets, juxtaposed against beautiful palaces, impressive bridges, sumptuous gardens, towering churches, fine art, avant-garde literature and sublime music. Baron Haussmann, the prodigious French civil servant hired by Napoléon III, would not commence his massive urban renewal projects until 1853. Into this maelstrom of convergent sensibilities, Elizabeth Blackwell arrived in Paris in the spring of 1849. Elizabeth Blackwell was born on February 3, 1821 in Bristol, England, the third of nine children born into the wealthy, Protestant-Congregationalist family of Samuel Blackwell and Hannah Lane. (The Protestant-Congregationalists were supporters of social reform movements, including abolitionism, temperance, and women’s suffrage.) Samuel owned a prosperous sugar refinery and Hannah looked after her children and their country estate. Elizabeth was educated at home by private tutors, as were the rest of her siblings. Her parents believed that their children should be given the opportunity for unlimited development of their talents and gifts. Following the loss of his sugar refinery in a fire, Samuel decided to take his family to live in America. In August 1832, the Blackwells embarked on a seven week voyage to New York. Once established, Samuel formed the Congress Sugar Refinery, and for the next six years the family lived and prospered. During this time Samuel became active in the growing abolitionist movement and the family attended anti-slavery rallies. Because the sugarcane industry used slave labor, Samuel sold his business and moved his family to the booming town of Cincinnati, Ohio in order to grow sugar beets. Sadly, just a few weeks after arriving in Cincinnati, he died of a fever leaving his family almost destitute. With the family’s survival at stake, Elizabeth, then age 17, and her older sisters, Anna and Marian, resolved to become self-sufficient, and started a school in their home – The Cincinnati English & French Academy for Young Ladies. With revenues from tuition, room and board, the school made enough money to keep the family going for the next four years. Introduced to the ideas of transcendentalism by her older sister, Anna, Elizabeth began attending the Unitarian Church and various religious services in other denominations (Quaker, Millerite, Jewish). But a conservative backlash from the Cincinnati community forced the academy to close in 1842. For the next two years Elizabeth and her sisters taught students privately. In 1844 Elizabeth was invited to take a teaching job that paid $400 a year in Henderson, Kentucky. Although she was pleased, she was equally disturbed by her first encounters with the realities of slavery. “Kind as the people were to me personally, my sense of justice was continually outraged; and at the end of the first term of engagement I resigned the situation.” She returned to Cincinnati determined to find a more stimulating, productive and agreeable way to spend her life. As often happens, when one door closes another opens, and while in Cincinnati, Elizabeth visited a close friend who was dying. She told her that her illness would have been more bearable if she had been treated by a woman, because she believed women had inherently compassionate natures. The idea that women would be more comfortable being examined and confiding their medical ailments to a woman doctor struck her like a thunderbolt. Even though she had always been physically repelled by diseases and ailments of the body, she decided then and there to overcome her aversions and become a doctor. In order to raise the money to attend medical school, Elizabeth taught slave children at Sunday Schools in North and South Carolina between 1845 and 1847. While in N.C., she stayed with the Reverend John Dickson, who had been a physician before becoming a clergyman. He was extremely supportive and allowed her access to his medical books. Moving next to Charleston, S.C., she lodged with Dickson’s brother, Samuel, a prominent physician and professor of medicine, who also encouraged her to apply to several medical schools. Being a woman, she was rejected out of hand. Elizabeth appeared to have won her battle in October 1847, when Geneva Medical College in the town of Geneva, New York, accepted her application, the 30th she had made. At first the medical faculty at Geneva treated her application as a joke. They informed the medical students that a woman had applied to become a doctor and that she would be accepted if there were no objections. Believing Elizabeth’s application to be a practical joke played on them by a rival college’s students, they played along and made sure there were no objections. Everyone was shocked when Elizabeth actually began her new life as a medical student. The Springfield Republican reported, “…A very notable event was the appearance at the medical lectures of a young woman student named Blackwell. She is a pretty little specimen of the feminine gender. She comes into the class with great composure, takes off her bonnet and puts it under the seat, exposing a fine phrenology. The effect on the class has been good, and great decorum is observed while she…

Lead photo credit : Portrait of Elizabeth Blackwell by Joseph Stanley Kozlowski, 1905. Syracuse University Medical School collection. Public domain.

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Sue Aran lives in the Gers department of southwest France. She is the owner of French Country Adventures, which provides private, personally-guided, small-group food & wine adventures into Gascony, the Pays Basque and Provence. She writes a monthly blog about her life in France and is a contributor to Bonjour Paris and France Today magazines.


  • Robert Watson
    2017-10-05 11:38:22
    Robert Watson
    I would like to extend Tom Fiorina's sentiments: I don't know how you became aware of Elizabeth Blackwell, but I think people (students; young women in particular, as well as the general population) should be made more aware of her! And yes, thank you for your research and bringing her story to light.


  • Tom Fiorina
    2017-08-24 09:53:51
    Tom Fiorina
    An incredibly motivating story. I don't know how this amazing woman came to your attention, Sue, but I appreciate your having researched and communicated her tale.