On January 23, 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman in the United States to receive a medical degree when she graduated from New York’s Geneva Medical College.
Blackwell had emigrated with her family from England to the U.S. at age eleven after her father’s sugar refinery business failed. A few years later her father died, and she took up teaching to help support the family. The idea to become a doctor came from a dying friend. “If I could only have been treated by a lady doctor, my worst sufferings would have been spared me,” she told Elizabeth. “Promise me you will at least think about it.”
It was a time when most people thought women incapable of such work. More than two dozen medical schools rejected Blackwell before she was finally accepted by Geneva Medical College. She arrived on campus to discover that her admission had been something of a jest. Evidently the faculty had allowed the all-male student body to vote on her application, thinking they would never accept her. Many students thought it was a practical joke, and voted yes.
Once enrolled, Blackwell earned the admiration of her professors and classmates. She ended up graduating with top honors.
In 1851, Blackwell opened her own practice in New York City. At first most doctors shunned her, and few patients came to see her. A few years later, her sister and another female friend, who had also become doctors, joined her to open the New York Infirmary for Women and Children (now the New York Downtown Hospital). The institution served the poor and established a medical school that graduated hundreds of female doctors and nurses.
By the time Blackwell died in 1910, thousands of American women had followed in her footsteps. Today, about half of the doctors graduating from U.S. medical schools are women.