Vanquishing Horrors and Disgusts

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic


Vanquishing Horrors and Disgusts

 

When Elizabeth Blackwell conquered her trepidation and become the first female doctor in the United States

 

Elizabeth Blackwell wasn't quite sure what she wanted to do with her life, but she knew what she didn't want to do – study medicine! "The thought of dwelling on the physical structure of the body and its various ailments," she would later reflect, "filled me with disgust."  Of course she was not alone in her thinking.  Most prim and proper British ladies of the mid-1800s felt such topics were simply not acceptable areas of interest for females. Like those women, Elizabeth was attuned to society's restrictions and usually followed them.  Unlike them, she would soon leap over those boundaries, cast aside her distain for studying the human body, and earn the first medical doctorate awarded to a women in the United States.

One of the main reasons for her change of heart came from a conversation with a family friend named Mary Donaldson.  Sadly, Mary was dying from what historians feel was likely uterine cancer.  "My friend" Elizabeth reflected years later, "died of a painful disease, the delicate nature of which made the methods of treatment a constant suffering to her."  During their visits, Mary once confided that the embarrassment of being examined and treated by a male made the ordeal much worse.  She also felt that a female physician would have been much more empathetic with her experience. "If I could have been treated by a lady doctor," she voiced, "my worst sufferings would have been spared me."  After Mary related her feelings to Elizabeth, she proposed a pathway that, at the time seemed almost unimaginable.  "Why don't you study medicine?"

Another reason for Elizabeth's departure from society's strict roles lies in her family's emphasis on free thinking.  Her father, Samuel Blackwell, was considered a "dissenter" in their Bristol, England community since he refused to accept the authority of an established church.  Both he and his wife, Hanna, were deeply religious but chose to worship in an independent church.  Because of this, his children were denied public schooling.  Samuel, a prosperous sugar refiner, hired tutors to teach his children.  This opened a new horizon to their girls, since the tutors defied British tradition by instructing the girls in the same subjects as the boys. 

When Elizabeth was twelve, the family moved to New York City where her father established a successful sugar refinery.  As in England, Samuel became known to his new neighbors for his strong convictions – this time as an avid supporter of abolition.  Unfortunately, during Elizabeth's teenage years, America's financial crises of 1837 wiped away most of the family's wealth.  They headed to Cincinnati, Ohio the next year, hoping for a new start.  But tragedy again struck, only a few months after their relocation.  Samuel contacted a severe illness and rampant fever, and died within days.  To keep the family solvent, Elizabeth and her two older sisters, Anna and Marian, opened a boarding school for young women. 

After four years of teaching there, Elizabeth took a teaching position in Henderson, Kentucky.  She returned to Cincinnati at the end of the school year because the community's racial attitudes offended the strong abolitionists beliefs she had acquired from her father.  That was the time period when she visited Mary Donaldson in the Cincinnati hospital and was urged to study medicine.  It would take some time for Mary's advice to settle into Elizabeth's consciousness.  She occasionally bounced the idea off her friends and didn't exactly receive overwhelming support.  One in fact, told her the only way she could get into a medical college would likely be to disguise herself as a man.

Not interested in this option, Elizabeth nonetheless continued to entertain the idea of attending medical school.  Eventually, her musings blossomed into a full-fledged obsession.  She moved to Ashville, North Carolina in 1845 to teach school and board with a well-respected clergyman and family friend named John Dickson.  Prior to his ministry, Dickson had practiced medicine.  He gave Elizabeth free access to his medical library and encouraged her interest in the subject.  The next year she taught at a girl's school in Charleston, South Carolina, where she stayed with John's brother, Samuel, a physician and college professor.

Like John, Samuel tutored Elizabeth and allowed her to borrow his medical books.  The brothers' support soon ignited a fire in their protégé.  "I have not the slightest hesitation on the subject," Elizabeth wrote to her family during her stay with Samuel, "The thorough study of medicine, I am quite resolved to go through with."  She added that she had previously overcome stronger distastes than that of studying bodily functions and diseases. "The horrors and disgusts," Elizabeth resolved, "I have no doubt of vanquishing." 

While she battled her emotional resistance, Elizabeth steadily absorbed the complex information in the medical books.  Previously unimaginable aspects of biological functions and diseases, suddenly transformed into fascinating secrets waiting to be to be discovered.  Philadelphia, she was informed, would be a logical place to find a medical school to open the door to her ever-expanding dream.  As she fired off letters to every medical school in the city, Elizabeth boarded with a Doctor Elder and studied anatomy with Doctor Jonathan Allen.  Unfortunately, her friend's prediction of the severe obstacles, which might compel her to take the disguise of a man, proved well founded.  Letter after letter arrived declining her application. 

Elizabeth expanded her search to include smaller rural colleges, and finally received acceptance from Geneva Medical Collage in upstate New York.  She would later learn that the dean and faculty, who traditionally made the decision regarding an admission, had taken a peculiar course.  They put the issue up for a vote by the 150 male students in the class, stipulating that if one student objected, "Miss Blackwell would be turned away."  Meanwhile, the students, considering the novel admission of a young woman to be a tempting option, conspired to unanimously accept her.  This decision, several students would later report, was actually made as "sort of practical joke." 

Joke or not, Elizabeth now stood at the doorway to her dreams.  Initially, she was often regarded with suspicion and resentment, and was even barred from attending classroom laboratory demonstrations.  It wasn't long, however, before her fellow students began to respect her solemn studious approach to the field of medicine.  The fact that her name routinely topped the class grade list enhanced that respect.  "Throughout the examination time," she wrote home, "the most friendly interest was felt in my success by my fellow students."  Even the faculty came to value her calming presence in their classrooms.  An observer from the Springfield Republican noted "She comes into class with great composure, takes off her bonnet and puts it under her seat."  "Great decorum," he continued, "is observed while she is present."

On January 23, 1849 Elizabeth became the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States.  Not only did she graduate, but she soared to the top of her class.  As a tribute to her diligence, when the dean conferred her degree, he stood and bowed to her.  That bow would foreshadow the gratitude of a multitude of grateful female doctors who followed her lead.  Before Elizabeth Blackwood stepped off the stage of medical history, she laid out a clear pathway for others to stride.

Her younger sister, Emily, who later obtained her medical doctorate, helped Elizabeth found The New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children.  The institution offered a setting for female physicians to practice and included women on its board of trustees.  After returning to England in 1874, she co-founded the London School of Medicine for Women.  The institution would eventually opened doors for thousands of young women – once they vanquished their horrors and disgusts.


Submitted: March 20, 2021

© Copyright 2021 Dennis L. Goodwin. All rights reserved.

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