Elizabeth Blackwell

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Photograph of Elizabeth Blackwell

Elizabeth Blackwell, c. 1840.

Copy of Elizabeth Blackwell Diplomas

Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell's diploma, 1849.

Elizabeth Blackwell was born in 1821 to an English Quaker family of social advocates who believed that women should have the right to vote and that enslaved Blacks had a right to freedom. Her family moved to America when she was a young girl, and she spent much of her childhood in Ohio. When she informed her family of her desire to pursue a medical degree after talking with a friend fighting cancer, they supported her but warned her of the rejection she was likely to face. They were proven right after she submitted a series of application to medical colleges in the summer of 1846; she was rejected from all of them.

After a year studying in Philadelphia under the prestigious Dr. Joseph Warrington, with whom she also attended house calls and used his extensive library to teach herself Latin and Greek, Elizabeth Blackwell submitted another round of applications in the summer of 1847, including one to the Geneva Medical College. Her application and a recommendation from Dr. Warrington was given to the dean of Geneva College, Dr. Charles Lee. Even though he did not actively want to admit a female student, Dr. Warrington’s prestigious reputation could not be ignored. After a meeting with the faculty, it was decided to let the current medical students vote on whether to accept the female applicant or not. The faculty believed the all-male class would vote against admitting a woman. Stephen Smith, a student of the Geneva Medical College at the time, recalled when Dean Lee proposed the vote “the ludicrousness of the situation seemed to seize the entire class, and a perfect babel of talk, laughter, and catcalls followed.” Perhaps thinking the vote would not be respected, or perhaps as a practical joke, the all-male class unanimously voted to admit Elizabeth Blackwell.

In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell graduated at the top of her class. Witnesses recalled that the ceremony was heavily attended, as members of the press and local community came to watch the first woman graduate. When President Hale handed her the historic diploma she reportedly said, “Sir, by the hold of the Most High, it shall be the effort of my life to shed honor on this diploma”, and she did.

Dr. Blackwell founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children with the help of her sister, Emily Blackwell, who was the third woman in the US to receive a medical diploma. The hospital was run and mostly staffed by women, and it gave underrepresented groups (including women, children, and the poor) a place to receive health care. It also provided a place for woman to teach, learn, and gain experience in the medical fields, thus making it easier for other aspiring female doctors to follow in Dr. Blackwell’s footsteps.

Since her graduation Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell has become one of the most prominent graduates of Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Portraits of her hang in medical schools around the country and abroad; she is a member of the Women’s Hall of Fame; and she is even commemorated on a US postage stamp. A statue of her is located on the HWS campus, and when William Smith College opened its first female dormitory, it was named in her honor. The Colleges also commemorate her achievements with the Elizabeth Blackwell Award, given to women for outstanding service to humanity. Past recipients include Frances Perkins, Margaret Mead, Marian Anderson, Sandra Day O’Conner, Billie Jean King, Madeleine Albright, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.