Distinguished Women of Past and Present

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Emily Blackwell


Emily Blackwell, one of the first British-American women physicians, was born in Bristol, England in 1826. Her family moved to the United States in 1832 after a fire destroyed her father's business. For a while they lived in New York City and then, after incurring financial losses in the Panic of 1837, the Blackwells moved to Cincinnati, Ohio.

Emily applied for admission to study medicine at the Geneva Medical College in Geneva, New York, from which her older sister, Elizabeth Blackwell, had graduated. Her application was denied, however. The school was not ready to accept more women students just yet, although Elizabeth Blackwell, whose admission was treated as a practical joke, graduated at the top at her class. Emily applied to and was turned down by many more medical colleges. It took six years of trying before she was finally accepted in 1852 by Rush Medical College in Chicago. Although she successfully completed the first year of her medical school, Rush Medical College refused to accept her for the second year in response to pressure applied by the Illinois physicians. Emily then completed her medical school training in 1854 at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. After graduating with the highest honors, she went to Europe for two years to do postgraduate work in England, France and Germany.

In 1856, Drs. Emily Blackwell and Marie Zakrzewska joined Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell in New York City and together they opened a hospital, The New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, at 64 Bleecker Street. This was the first American hospital for women and staffed entirely by women. Elizabeth was a professor of hygiene, while Emily taught obstetrics and women's diseases. Emily also performed surgery, because her sister's vision was affected by an eye infection she contracted during her work in Paris. Emily Blackwell turned out to be a very capable administrator and fundraiser. Within two years, she was solely in charge of the clinic after her sister went to Europe for a year and Dr. Zakrzewska moved to Boston. During this time she was successful in getting state funding for their project.

In 1868, Elizabeth and Emily opened the Women's Medical College of the New York Infirmary and Emily accepted additional duties of teaching and educational administration. A year later, Elizabeth moved back to England permanently and Emily ran the hospital and the medical college alone. Despite the difficulties, her establishment continued to expand and by the 1870's she moved it into a converted mansion, where over seven thousand patients were treated annually. The medical college also expanded from a two year program to three and then to four years. This was ahead of many male medical schools which, at the time, were still offering two year medical training. Her medical college trained more than 350 physicians during its thirty-one year existence. It was closed in 1899 when Cornell University started admitting women students to their medical program. The infirmary still exists today as Beth Israel Medical Center.

Dr. Emily Blackwell retired at the turn of the century and spent the next ten years at her summer home in Maine. She died in 1910, a few months after Elizabeth's death in England.

Contributed by Danuta Bois, 1996.

1. American Women's History by Doris Weatherford, Prentice Hall General Reference, 1994
2. Women's World: A Timeline of Women in History by Irene M. Franck and David M. Brownstone, HarperCollins Publishers, 1995
3. Susan B. Anthony Slept Here. A Guide to American Women's Landmarks by Lynn Sherr and Jurate Kazickas, Random House, 1994

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