“The practice of medicine by
women is a growing influence,
and cannot be overlooked.”
Any lady in America who has graduated from medical school has done so thanks to these two amazing sisters. (Not literally. They do not show up from beyond the grave and do all your homework for you, but they paved the way for your diploma nonetheless.) Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell made it possible for all our lady selves to get into medical school if we so choose—and considering that women make up about half of all med school students these days, that’s 100 percent a big deal.
The Blackwell sisters were born in Bristol, England, in the 1820s to a large (as in, seven siblings and four aunts) social-justice-minded family. Their father, Samuel, was a sugar refiner, and the family moved in accordance with his business, first to New York City in 1830 and then to Ohio a decade later. In Ohio, Samuel tried to set up a sugar factory using locally sourced ingredients like sugar beets so that he could stop relying on the slave trade for his income (which was a bold move, considering that almost everything relied on enslaved labor back then). Unfortunately, the factory failed and Samuel Blackwell died shortly thereafter. But his legacy lived on, both in the “deeply ingrained sense of civil duty” sense and in the “beet-load of debt” sense. To make ends meet, Elizabeth began traveling across the United States as a teacher. During these trips she met a woman dying of uterine cancer who mentioned that her treatment would have been much more pleasant had she had a woman doctor.
For Elizabeth, that was all it took to rev up the ol’ “helping the less fortunate” Blackwell spirit. After saving the necessary $3,000 for medical school, Elizabeth started querying universities about admission. The replies were negative in all senses of the word. Most schools refused her request; one suggested that she just pretend to be a man, while another replied “that it was an utter impossibility for a woman to obtain a medical education; that the idea though good in itself, was eccentric and utopian, utterly impracticable!” Apparently, the medical school faculties were equal parts afraid that she, as a woman, would be far too stupid to be a doctor or that she, as a woman, would be far too good as a doctor, running all the men out of their jobs. Ultimately, Elizabeth received a conditional offer from Geneva Medical College (now Hobart) in upstate New York. The school agreed to put her admission to a vote, and if even one of her 150 male classmates said no, she would not be admitted. Luckily, they all thought it was a hilarious joke being played by a rival college (seriously!), and every one of them voted yes. All joking stopped shortly thereafter when Elizabeth marched in to class.
The town wasn’t quite sure what to make of her. “When I entered college in 1847,” said Elizabeth seventeen years later, at an address on the medical education of women, “the ladies of the town pronounced the undertaking crazy, or worse, and declared they would die rather than employ a woman as a physician….I had so shocked Geneva propriety that the theory was fully established either that I was a bad woman, whose designs would gradually become evident, or that, being insane, an outbreak of insanity would soon be apparent.” Quite a few news articles appeared on her acceptance and class attendance, although Elizabeth brushed them off, being “much annoyed by such public notices.” She had bigger things to focus on, like actual medical work.
Determined to prove her equal worth, Elizabeth wrote a letter to her professor insisting she was capable of attending dissections. It worked—not only was she allowed to participate, but her prof read the letter to the class. (In her diary, however, Elizabeth admitted that all that dead body stuff was a little, well, affecting: “My delicacy was certainly shocked, and yet the exhibition was in some sense ludicrous. I had to pinch my hand till the blood nearly came, and call on Christ to help me from smiling, for that would have ruined everything; but I sat in grave indifference, though the effort made my heart palpitate most painfully.”) Her persistence paid off, and on January 23, 1849, Elizabeth became the first woman in America to earn a medical degree. Called last to the stage, she was the only graduate for whom the president stood and bowed.
Unfortunately, not everyone thought she was righteously awesome. The school’s dean, Dr. Charles Lee, wrote only a few years later that the “inconvenience” of female medical students was so great that he would “feel compelled on all future occasions to oppose such a practice.” The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal seemed to agree, calling Elizabeth’s degree “a farce” and hoping, “for the honor of humanity,” that she would be the last woman MD in America. (Yeesh!) Luckily for us all, the great British satire and humor magazine Punch! knew what was up, and in 1849 its editors published a lovely poem called “An M. D. in a Gown”:
Young ladies all, of every clime,
Especially of Britain,
Who wholly occupy your time
In novels or in knitting,
Whose highest skill is but to play,
Sing, dance, or French to clack well,
Reflect on the example, pray
Of excellent Miss Blackwell!
Clearly, Emily Blackwell was listening. The younger Blackwell sister had grown into a tall, shy, ginger-haired woman who longed for “life instead of stagnation.” Much as she loved studying birds and plants at home, she wanted to follow in her older sister’s footsteps and get herself to med school. Emily’s path would be just as hard as Elizabeth’s, if not more so. She was rejected by eleven medical schools because of her gender, and when she was finally accepted into Chicago’s Rush Medical College, the school demanded she leave a year later after her (whiny) (male) classmates complained to the Medical Society of Illinois. But Emily was undeterred. She studied privately, visiting as many clinical lectures as she could, until at last she was accepted at Western Reserve University’s medical school in Cleveland, thanks to the forward thinking of one Dean John Delamater and the support of the Ohio Female Medical Education Society. She earned her medical degree in 1854 and, after bopping around Europe for a bit, headed back to New York City.
At last, the sisters were primed to combine their powers. In 1857 Elizabeth, who had lost both an eye and her hopes of becoming a surgeon during a stint working in Europe, teamed up with Emily and a German doctor named Marie Zakrzewska to establish the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. The hospital occupied a sixteen-room house and employed a full female staff of physicians, executives, and trustees. Emily was in charge of operations and succeeded in securing long-term state support—$1,000 a year and official recognition—by heading to Albany with one of the trustees to demand it in person. (Not bad for a shy girl!) Yet somehow Dean Emily still managed to find time to help train nurses during the Civil War. At the time, the medical college had one of the best programs in the country: a full four-year comprehensive, complete with incredible lab space, amazing clinical training, and a policy of No Boyz Allowed. By 1876 the facility had expanded to include another mansion and capacity for over 7,500 in- and outpatients per year. By the turn of the twentieth century, they’d trained almost four hundred lady doctors.
Of course, not everything went smoothly. Elizabeth occasionally butted heads with Emily (sisters, you know how it goes) and moved to London, where she got a little, um, out there with her ideas about how germs aren’t real and vaccines are bad and we all get sick because of moral corruption. She never married, claiming that “I cannot find my other half here, but only about a sixth, which would not do” (even though she’d received what was basically a proposal from none other than Florence Nightingale, who said Elizabeth would “want no other husband” but her if they ended up together). Instead, Elizabeth created her own family by adopting an Irish girl (who ended up working more as Elizabeth’s servant, unfortunately).
Emily stuck things out in New York, and while training at the clinic she met the love of her life, Dr. Elizabeth Cushier. They moved in together in 1882 (just gals bein’ pals, right, history?), along with their adopted daughter Nanni. Emily found Cushier to be hugely valuable to both the infirmary and the college after her sister’s departure (“What I should have done without her help in the work the last few years I do not know”). But when Cornell University started admitting women in 1899, the two of them decided to shut down the school in the interest of promoting nongendered education. Emily became a member of the New York County Medical Society in 1871 (after years of turning down the honor because of her shyness), and she even served on a committee that raised $50,000 for Harvard—on the catch that the university start accepting women to its medical school. Officials turned the money down.
In their retirement, Emily and Cushier traveled together for eighteen months. Cushier was only sixty-two years old, and though she “did not feel that [she] actually needed to make the break at this time, [she] could not resist the thought of travel with such a companion.” (Too sweet.) Emily died in Maine in 1910, just a few months after the death of Elizabeth. Today their legacy lives on, and it’s great to think how super-psyched they’d be to see so many American women becoming doctors. So let’s double ghost fist-bump these sisters right now. Do it. Do it. No one’s watching. Do it.