Letters of Elizabeth Blackwell, 1857-1900
Transcripts of letters from Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States, to Mrs. William Elder and to Dr. Gertrude Walker, recording secretary of the alumnae association of the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania
- Blackwell, Elizabeth, 1821-1910 (Person)
Language of Materials
Materials in English.
Access. Originals closed; use digital images.
Conditions Governing Use
Copyright. Papers created by Elizabeth Blackwell are in the public domain.
Copying. Papers may be copied in accordance with the library's usual procedures.
Collection consists of typed transcripts of letters from Elizabeth Blackwell to Mrs. William Elder and to Dr. Gertrude Walker, recording secretary of the alumnae association of the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania. In her 1857 letter to Elder, Blackwell notes that she has named Elder's home as a place to which articles for an upcoming fair could be sent. This fair was apparently intended to raise funds for women studying or practicing medicine. Blackwell observes that, "Women cannot help themselves in all practical matters--and in this matter of medicine there is but one way to carry it on, and that we are initiating." She also comments on her sister Emily's progress as a surgeon, noting that Emily was to perform her first operation on a private patient that same day, and report on the birth of her sister-in-law Lucy's Stone's daughter Alice. She writes of Stone, "she has conducted the whole affair in the most proper style, being bright, fresh and active from beginning to end, and very happy."
In the letter to Walker, Blackwell congratulates the Medical College on its 50th anniversary, and reflects on the assistance she received with her medical studies from doctors in Philadelphia in the late 1840s. She also recollects being informed of the Medical College's establishment by Ann Preston, when practicing medicine in New York City in 1851. Preston, one of the school's first graduates, later became its first woman dean.
Doctor and social reformer Elizabeth Blackwell was born in 1821, in Bristol, Gloucestershire, England, the daughter of Samuel Blackwell, a sugar refiner, and Hannah Lane Blackwell. She had eight siblings. Samuel Blackwell was an abolitionist and also believed in the equal education of women, as well as in the importance of self improvement and working for social change. These qualities informed the lives of his children. In 1832 the family immigrated to New York State, eventually relocating to Cincinnati, Ohio. Samuel Blackwell died when Elizabeth was seventeen, leaving the family in an impoverished condition; to help support the family, Elizabeth and her elder sisters, Anna and Marian, established a school, The Cincinnati English and French Academy for Young Ladies. The school ultimately did not prove profitable and Blackwell subsequently tutored private pupils before teaching at schools in Kentucky and North Carolina. In Asheville, North Carolina, Blackwell met John Dickson, a minister and former physician, and his brother Samuel, also a physician. The brothers encouraged her interest in medicine.
In 1847, Blackwell relocated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she studied privately with Dr. Jonathan Allen. She sought admission at several medical schools without success before being accepted as a student at Geneva Medical College (later Hobart College) in upstate New York. In 1849 she became the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States. Later that year she traveled to Europe to continue her medical studies, but, as in the Unites States, she met with opposition and resistance. She ultimately took a position at a lying-in hospital in Paris. While in Paris, she met Dr. Hippolyte Blot, who was a mentor to her. In late 1849, her left eye became infected and had to be surgically removed; this ended her hopes of becoming a surgeon. She studied at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London before returning to New York in 1851, in hopes of establishing a medical practice there.
She had difficulty finding patients in New York and in 1852 began lecturing on medical issues. The following year, she opened a small dispensary and in 1857, with her sister Emily (the third woman to earn a medical degree in the United States), and Dr. Marie Zakrzewska, she expanded the dispensary into the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. Women served on the Infirmary's board and executive committee. Both Blackwell and Emily were active in nursing efforts during the Civil War, working with Dorothea Dix to train nurses for the Union cause.
In 1869, Blackwell relocated to London, with the goal of establishing medical education for women there. In 1874, she and Sophia Jex-Blake opened the London School for Women, but their attitudes towards women's education differed and Blackwell withdrew from the school in 1877, ending her medical career. While in London, Blackwell, who received a comfortable income from investments she had made in the United States, became increasingly active in social reform, co-founding the National Health Society in 1871, and participating in reform movements on a wide range of issues including sexual purity, hygiene and medical education, preventive medicine, eugenics, family planning, and women's rights. She also contributed to the founding of the utopian communities Starnthwaite and Hadleigh in the 1880s. She traveled widely throughout Europe and remained active until a few years before her death in 1910.
Immediate Source of Acquisition
Accession number: 121
These letters of Elizabeth Blackwell were given to the Schlesinger Library by Woman's Medical College of Philadelphia in 1960.
By: Schlesinger Library staff
Updated and additional description added: October 2020
By: Susan Earle
The Schlesinger Library attempts to provide a basic level of preservation and access for all collections, and does more extensive processing of higher priority collections as time and resources permit. Finding aids may be updated periodically to account for new acquisitions to the collection and/or revisions in arrangement and description.
- Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America
- Language of description
- Processing of this collection was made possible by the Radcliffe Class of 1955 Manuscript Processing Fund.
- EAD ID
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