Elizabeth Blackwell

American physician, abolitionist, women's rights activist (1821-1910)

Elizabeth Blackwell (February 3, 1821 – May 31, 1910) was a British-American physician, author, medical sociologist, and moral reformer. She is known as the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States.

Elizabeth Blackwell


  • In 1845 when I resolved to become a physician, six eminent physicians, in different parts of the country were written to, for advice. They all united in dissuading me, stating, "That it was an utter impossibility for a woman to obtain a medical education; that the idea though good in itself, was eccentric and utopian, utter impracticable!" It was only by long-continued searching through all the colleges of the country, that one was at last found willing to grant admission. When I entered college in 1847, the ladies of the town pronounced the undertaking crazy, or worse and declared that they would die rather than employ a woman as a physician. In 1852, when establishing myself in New York there was the utmost difficulty in finding a boarding house where the simple name, as a physician could be placed; ladies would not reside in a house so marked, and expressed the greatest astonishment that it should be allowed in a respectable establishment.

Medicine and Morality (1881)

  • The great importance to the nation of the prevalence of a high standard of morality in the body of the Medical Profession is evident from the confidential character of the services they are called on to perform. Very few are investigators or experimenters. The great majority become the trusted friends of the family in its time of greatest weakness and need.
    • Elizabeth Blackwell (1881). "Medicine and Morality". The Modern Review: A Quarterly Magazine: 750-764 (pages 761–764 have an editorial comment). (quote from p. 751)
  • Every physician knows the numerous sources of error that may lead an able advocate to wrong conclusions. The difficult art of statistics, which is no simple arrangement of numbers, but often requires very elaborate calculations, may lend itself to error; the neglect of some facts, or the undue prominence of others, the comparison of dissimilar conditions, or observations made on too short a scale or for too short a period—all these various conditions must be considered as sources of possible error.
  • In carrying on the grand work of improving national health, extirpating loathsome disease, discovering and removing the causes of disease, the distinction must be carefully drawn between the object to be accomplished and the means by which it shall be attained. The object is a grand one; the method of accomplishing it must be equally so, i.e., it must be guided by moral principle.
  • For what is done or learned by one class of women becomes, by virtue of their common womanhood, the property of all women.
    • Quoted in: Kabir, Hajara Muhammad (2010). Northern women development. [Nigeria]. ISBN 978-978-906-469-4. OCLC 890820657.

Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women (1895)

  • The people of Henderson were all very friendly to me personally, and my relations always pleasant with them; but the injustice of the state of society made a gradually deepening impression on my mind. The inhabitants lived in constant fear of an outbreak among the slaves. Women did not dare to walk in the pleasant woods and country around the village, for terror of runaway slaves. Painful social contrasts constantly forced themselves on my notice.
  • It was at this time that the suggestion of studying medicine was first presented to me, by a lady friend. This friend finally died of a painful disease, the delicate nature of which made the methods of treatment a constant suffering to her. She once said to me,'You are fond of study, have health and leisure; why not study medicine? If I could have been treated by a lady doctor, my worst sufferings would have been spared me.' But I at once repudiated the suggestion as an impossible one, saying that I hated everything connected with the body, and could not bear the sight of a medical book.
    ... My favourite studies were history and metaphysics, and the very thought of dwelling on the physical structure of the body and its various ailments filled me with disgust.
  • If an idea, I reasoned, were really a valuable one, there must be some way of realising it. The idea of winning a doctor's degree gradually assumed the aspect of a great moral struggle, and the moral fight possessed great attraction for me.
  • The gross perversion and destruction of motherhood by the abortionist filled me with indignation, and awakened active antagonism. That the honourable term 'female physician' should be exclusively applied to those women who carried on this shocking trade seemed to me a horror. It was an utter degradation of what might and should become a noble position for women.
  • I am prepared for this. Prejudice is more violent the blinder it is...a work of the ages cannot be hindered by individual feeling. A hundred years hence women will not be what they are now.

Elizabeth Blackwell's quote, "Prejudice is more violent than the blinder it is," conveys a profound observation about the destructive nature of prejudice. At its core, Blackwell's quote highlights the detrimental impact of prejudice on individuals and society as a whole. The term "blinder" refers to a lack of knowledge or understanding, suggesting that ignorance alone is not as harmful as prejudice. Prejudice involves preconceived notions, biases, and unfair judgments based on characteristics such as race, gender, religion, or social status.

By stating that prejudice is more violent than the blinder it is, Blackwell suggests that prejudice inflicts deeper wounds and causes more harm than mere ignorance. The word "violent" here metaphorically describes the destructive and harmful nature of prejudice. It implies that prejudice not only causes emotional and psychological harm but also perpetuates social injustice, discrimination, and inequality.

Furthermore, Blackwell's quote draws attention to the fact that prejudice is a conscious choice rather than a result of ignorance. The quote implies that ignorance can be addressed through education and exposure to diverse perspectives. However, prejudice, driven by deeply ingrained biases, is far more difficult to overcome.

Essays in Medical Sociology (1899)

  • The essence of all religions is the recognition of an Authority higher, more comprehensive, more permanent than the human being. The characteristic of Christian teaching, however, is the faith that this Supreme Authority is beneficent as well as powerful. The Christian believes that the Creative Force is a moral force, of more comprehensive morality than the human being that it creates. Under the symbol of a wise and loving parent—the most just, efficient, and attractive image that we know of—we are encouraged to regard this unseen Authority as being in direct relation with every atom of creation, and as desirous of drawing each atom into progressively higher forms of existence.
  • A serious difficulty in understanding how to educate and regulate the relations of sex arises from the fact that it is the relation of two equal but distinct halves of the human race, and exists in the dual form—male and female. Unless the distinctive characteristics and requirements of each of these equal halves are fully understood, the relation between them cannot be satisfactory.
  • The subject of love is always of the most absorbing interest to the younger and more active portion of a people; sexual passion, in its ennobling or debasing form, exercises irresistible attraction.

Quotes about Elizabeth Blackwell

  • Another way in which professionalization worked to the detriment of women can be seen in the cases of Drs. Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, Marie Zakrzewska, and Ann Preston, who despite their M.D.s and excellent training were denied access to hospitals, were refused recognition by county medical societies, and were denied customary referrals by male colleagues. Their experiences were similar to those of most of the pioneer women physicians.
    • Gerda Lerner, The Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History’’ (1979)
  • The anarchist-feminists' denial of gender-based distinctions precluded their use of many of the arguments for equality utilized by the mainstream feminists during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For example, the followers of Catharine Beecher could demand access to the teaching profession on the grounds that the female nurturing instinct made women biologically better suited than men to educate the young. Elizabeth Blackwell sometimes used similar arguments in her attempts to open the medical profession to women.
    • Margaret S Marsh, Anarchist Women, 1870-1920 (1981)
  • When Elizabeth Blackwell studied medicine and put up her sign in New York, she was regarded as fair game, and was called a "she doctor." The college that had admitted her closed its doors afterward against other women; and supposed they were shut out forever. But Dr. Blackwell was a woman of fine intellect, of great personal worth and a level head. How good it was that such a woman was the first doctor! She was well equipped by study at home and abroad, and prepared to contend with prejudice and every opposing thing.
  • Elizabeth Blackwell had no interest in training separately from men. But others began to set up medical schools for women only, such as the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. In 1868, the Blackwells bowed to pressure (and the ongoing lack of coeducational opportunities) and established the Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary. Their work was a constant financial battle. Elizabeth struggled to attract benefactors and frequently clashed with potential allies.
    • Hannah Wunsch: (2021). "Sisters who kicked down the door of the US medical establishment (review of The Doctors Blackwell by Janice P. Nimura)". Nature 589 (7841): 192–193. ISSN 0028-0836. DOI:10.1038/d41586-021-00020-3.
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