Today, we are used to seeing a female doctor, but not so long ago it was a purely male profession. Elizabeth Blackwell was the one to change this trend and became the first American woman to become a registered doctor. Elizabeth was born on February 3, 1821, near Bristol in England.
She had a happy childhood; especially she recalled the positive influence of his father. In education, religion and social issues he was quite liberal, for example, he did not punish children's misdeeds by flogging, but instead he put them down in the black book, and if there were many violations, the child was sent to the attic at lunchtime. However, this does not mean that as a result he had poorly educated children. Elizabeth had a governess, and private teachers for better intellectual development, but in the end, she was socially isolated from everyone except her family. At the age of 11 years, Elizabeth Blackwell and her family moved to the United States. After her father's death in 1838, along with her mother and sister, she opened a school for girls.
For the first time the thought of getting medical education came to Elizabeth’s head after the death of her friend from a painful disease. This friend said that she could probably make the treatment more comfortable and Elizabeth herself thought that women could be good doctors because of their maternal instincts. Initially, she refused the idea, as the hated everything related to the body, and could not even look at the medical books. Another phenomenon that influenced her decision was the connotation of the words female doctor – she actually said that the most that a woman can do in the field, was the administration of abortion. In addition, it was important for Elizabeth to live alone, independently from men and matrimonial ties.
Elizabeth's decision to study medicine was quite spontaneous, made before she realized how difficult it would be to overcome all the patriarchal barriers, but these challenges had only strengthened her resolution. Becoming a doctor was not easy for her. She studied medicine alone, collecting the crumbs of knowledge from books and conversations with Dr. Samuel Dixon. Elizabeth Blackwell ineffectively filed its application for admission to study at medical schools in New York and Pennsylvania. As was common in the 40s of the 19th century in America - in the medical schools of both the New and Old World girls were not enrolled. Doctor in those years could be exclusively male.
Despite the objections of fellow students and the public, she became the first female graduate of the Medical School in the United States. Elizabeth filed documents to the College of Geneva, which was located near New York City. Its administration invited students to vote whether they wanted to see student girl among them or not. Obviously, the students took it as a hoax, and voted to accept the girl in college. In this way, Elizabeth Blackwell was admitted to study in college, but the scandal erupted. Fellow students and the public criticized her. Elizabeth stood firmly and despite the apparently dismissive attitude towards her, brilliant academic success earned her respect of many students and teachers.
In 1849, being the best at her course, Elizabeth Blackwell brilliantly graduated from school. After receiving a diploma and a master's degree, she overcame a lot of red tape and started to practice. Upon receiving U.S. citizenship, Elizabeth Blackwell went to Paris, where she enrolled in La Maternite – one of the best obstetric schools in the world. While caring for a child infected with gonorrhea, she contracted a severe form of conjunctivitis that led to the removal of one of her eyes.
Not being able to study at the Paris hospital, Elizabeth moved to London in October 1850 and continued her studies at St. Bartholomew's Hospital. It gave her the right to launch private practice. Her younger sister Emily struggled to become a doctor in America, so Elizabeth Blackwell returned to the United States to establish a collaborative practice. She opened it at her own house, and moved to live in the attic to use the living rooms for the reception of patients.
In 1853, she opened a clinic that became known as the New York clinic for poor women and children. With the help of nurses and colleagues of Dr. Emily Blackwell, in 1857, she opened in New York another hospital for poor women and children. Equipped for decades with exclusively female staff, the hospital in New York for women and children was recognized by the American Medical Association as a hospital of grade "A". The same year she became the first woman to win the British Medical Registry.
At the end of 1868, Elizabeth Blackwell created a medical school for women. Students of the Women's Medical College of New York learned the concept of hygiene from her. It was the first school dedicated entirely to the medical education of women, which later became one of the first medical schools in the United States giving a diploma after four years of study. The first black female physician, Rebecca Cole, was one of the first graduates of the Women's Medical College. Another of her first students was Sophia Jex-Blake, who opened a medical school for women later in London.
Elizabeth Blackwell believed that maintenance of proper sanitation was an important aspect of health. U.S. Sanitary Commission was created with her involvement. When the Civil War began, Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell created the Central Association of Women on training of army nurses. This association was soon helping health committee, officially designated by President Lincoln.
Robert Hooke discovered cells and gave them their name in the early 17th century, when watching the dead plant cells. Van Leeuwenhoek first observed the living cells under a microscope. In the 19th century, the work of three German scientists - Theodore Schwann (1810-82), Matthias Jakob Schleiden (1804-81), and especially Rudolf Virchow (1821-1902) - led to the emergence of cell theory. In short, this theory states that all living things are made of cells, that the cell is the basic structural and functional unit in living beings, and that all cells are produced by other cells. Using the theory of cells, Virchow was able to explain such biological processes as fertilization and growth. He also demonstrated that changes in the cells lead to the emergence of diseases such as cancer. Cell theory is one of the cornerstones of modern medicine.
Another cornerstone was the theory of germs. Even in the heyday of humorous medicine, there were doctors, who believed that some diseases were transmitted by infection. The first mentioning of the "miserable creatures" that cause the disease appeared in the Vedas, the sacred Hindu texts, which were created between 1500 and 500 years BC. Avicenna understood that tuberculosis and other diseases were infectious. Later Muslim scholars called the cause of bubonic plague bacteria. Fracastoro suggested that disease spread by the seeds (Bennett & Blackwell, 2009). In general, however, most scientists believed that bacteria arose spontaneously, like worms, flies and other small animals in the rotting material. Aristotle believed in it, and this theory was not disproved until the 19th century.
Another of the theories created by the ancient Greeks had influence until the 19th century. This theory was based on the claim that diseases such as plague and cholera were caused by bad miasma - air containing particles of decaying matter. The theory argues that such air is poisonous, and it sounded plausible, since it linked the disease with poor sanitary conditions, and the importance of hygiene was recognized since ancient times. The first nurse from Britain, Florence Nightingale, who had nursed British soldiers during the Crimean War (1853-1856), was firmly convinced that miasma causes disease.
However, by this time there had long been conducted research that ultimately denied both of these erroneous theories. In 1854, English physician John Snow was able to identify the cause of cholera in London - water contaminated with garbage. His detailed research became a key event in the history of both public health and epidemiology sectors.
Soon afterwards, the great French chemist Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) conducted experiments that refuted the idea that life could arise spontaneously. He demonstrated that everywhere, including in the air, micro-organisms were present. Moreover, he demonstrated that they were the source of the chemical process, which resulted in sour milk. He developed the procedure of heating milk (or other fluids) to kill germs, which bears his name: pasteurization. After getting widespread, pasteurization ensures that the milk does not become a source of tuberculosis and other diseases (Stone, 2013).
Pasteur ardently advocated the idea that microorganisms caused infectious diseases in humans and animals. He developed effective vaccines against anthrax and rabies, using tissues of animals dying from these diseases. However, only the work of the German doctor Robert Koch (1843-1910) finally confirmed the correctness of the germ theory of disease. It identified specific bacteria that caused anthrax, tuberculosis and cholera. He also developed a set of rules (Koch's postulates) for the final determination of whether a microorganism caused human disease. It gave start to bacteriology.
Soon the other areas of microbiology arose. It was found that parasitic microbes, many of which were distributed by mosquitoes, caused the various tropical diseases. Among these diseases, there are two most serious ones malaria and yellow fever. However, yellow fever, rabies and smallpox similarly failed to associate with any of the bacteria. Based on studies of Russian pathologist Ivanouski (1864-1920), American surgeon Walter Reed (1851-1902) revealed in 1901 that yellow fever was caused by a virus - the body smaller than a bacterium.
In the mid-19th century, other discoveries finally allowed to perform extensive surgery. Until that time, the scale of operations was limited to pain experienced in the operation by conscious person, as well as the risk of infection after surgery. In the 1840s, several U.S. dentists first tried out first nitrous oxide and then ether as an anesthetic. The last resort was soon recognized in Europe as suitable for surgery, which as a result allowed performing long complicated operations (Stone, 2013).
If we return to Elizabeth Blackwell, soon after the establishment of her college, she returned to England. She was engaged in private practice in London and worked as a professor at the London School of Medicine for Women. She went on vacation in 1877 and moved to Hastings. Elizabeth Blackwell died in England on May 31, 1910.
Today, New York Downtown Hospital according to tradition of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell continues being the bearer of excellence in medical education and patient care, and service to the disadvantaged. It is the only hospital in Lower Manhattan, which offers a full range of inpatient and outpatient services. It is also a leader in the provision of emergency assistance and disaster relief. The hospital is affiliated with the Weill Cornell Medical College, and is a member of the health care system New York-Presbyterian. In the name of Elizabeth Blackwell - the Square at the corner of Gold and Beekman Streets is called. A plaque is also located there dedicated to the first female doctor in America.
Bennett, C., & Blackwell, E. (2009). Lessons from SARS: Past Practice, Future Innovation. Innovation in Global Health Governance: Critical Cases, Farnham, United Kingdom, Ashgate Publishing, 49-62.
Stone, T. L. (2013). Who Says Women Can't be Doctors?: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell. Macmillan.