NIH News Release
National Library of Medicine

Thursday, January 28, 1999

Contact: Robert Mehnert
Kathleen Cravedi
(301) 496-6308

Hostility Greeted America's First Female Medical Student

National Library of Medicine Exhibit Commemorates the
150th Anniversary of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell's Graduation from Medical School

(Bethesda, Md.) - When Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell graduated from Geneva Medical College in upstate New York in January of 1849, few in the audience could appreciate the obstacles she had overcome to become America's first woman M.D. To commemorate this event, the National Library of Medicine, in Bethesda, Md., has mounted a small exhibit, titled, "That Girl There Is Doctor in Medicine."

The exhibit includes items illustrating Blackwell's life from medical school and throughout her career. It includes circulars and catalogs, some of Blackwell's own publications, and several portraits of her. "Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell was a true medical pioneer. Not only was she the first American woman to graduate from medical school, but she also focused her medical attention on the public health needs of the urban poor," said Tenley Albright, M.D. Dr. Albright chairs the Library's Board of Regents.

Blackwell's journey to and through medical school was rocky. She had been turned down by all the well-established medical schools before being accepted by a smaller college. The Geneva townspeople scorned her and figured her to be either "mad or bad." Her presence in an anatomy class in which a male cadaver was dissected created what she described in her diary as "a trying day… a terrible ordeal… Some of the students blushed, some were hysterical."

Even her attempts to get clinical medical experience in outside hospitals during breaks in her medical education were met with hostility. After vigorous lobbying by the governing body of the Blockley Almshouse in Philadelphia she was allowed to observe patients and medical staff -- but the young resident physicians refused to have anything to do with her.

Despite her medical school ordeal, by the time she graduated (first in her class), she had gained the support of the townspeople, students, and faculty. The dean of the medical school, Charles A. Lee commended Blackwell's "perseverance under difficulties and obstacles next to insurmountable."

And her experience as an observer at the Blockley Almshouse also paid off. Many of the patients were poor Irish immigrants who suffered from "ship fever" (typhus). Typhus later became the subject of her medical thesis and was published in the Buffalo Medical Journal -- an unusual honor for a medical student.

Following graduation, Blackwell went on to a sterling medical career -- but it was not without its mishaps. After two years of further study in Paris and London (Blackwell was British-born), she settled in New York City to establish a medical practice, where she met "a blank wall of social and professional antagonism." Undaunted she turned her attention to social and hygienic reform and promoting medical education for women.

Blackwell strongly believed that female medical students should receive their medical education alongside men in the established medical schools. She was not sympathetic to the women's medical schools that had opened in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York. But she lost this battle: despite the fact that she herself had been educated with men, medical schools still did not accept women. So she established her own women's medical college. The Women's Medical College of New York Infirmary opened its doors in 1868 with fifteen students.

Dr. Blackwell also established a free clinic, The New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, (which still exists as the New York Infirmary/Beckman Downtown Hospital). The purpose of the full-scale hospital was not only to serve the poor, but also to provide positions for women physicians and a training facility for female medical and nursing students.

"Hers is a remarkable story," commented NLM Director, Donald A. B. Lindberg, M.D. "She was a fine physician -- for her time or any other. One wishes she were viewed as a model by students today."

The National Library of Medicine is a part of the National Institutes of Health. It is located at 8600 Rockville Pike in Bethesda, Maryland. The Library is open to the public 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday; 8:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. on Thursday; and 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Saturday. The Blackwell exhibit will remain on display through June 1999.

Note to editors: Photographs of Dr. Blackwell are available. E-mail requests may be sent to