Jan. 23, 2023

Elizabeth Blackwell Becomes America’s First Woman Doctor

Elizabeth Blackwell Becomes America’s First Woman Doctor

January 23, 1849. British physician Elizabeth Blackwell graduates from Geneva Medical College in New York, becoming the first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States.


Cold Open

It’s a crisp November morning in 1847, in the town of Geneva in New York State.

Elizabeth Blackwell, a twenty-six-year-old medical student, walks briskly along Main Street, her school books clutched under one arm. As she makes her way to campus, Elizabeth becomes aware of some of the townspeople staring. Up ahead, a group of women cross the street to avoid Elizabeth, shooting her dirty looks as they pass. Elizabeth holds her head high, refusing to show any sign of weakness.

When Elizabeth reaches the main college building, she climbs the front steps… strides through the double doors… and hurries down the corridor to class.

As she approaches the lecture hall, the sound of her classmates’ rowdy banter grows louder, filling the hallway with noise. Elizabeth’s nerves jangle. But the young woman steels herself, takes a deep breath, and pushes open the classroom door…

At the sight of Elizabeth, the students’ chatter abruptly stops.

And as Elizabeth takes her seat, she feels sixty pairs of male eyes drilling into her. She opens her notebook and waits patiently. After a few excruciating moments… the professor bursts into the classroom.

He begins writing on the chalkboard the subject of today’s seminar: “male and female anatomy.”

Elizabeth stiffens as giggles ripple around the lecture hall.

At the sound of laughter, the professor spins around and scans the room, his narrowed eyes flitting from left to right until he spots Elizabeth. She blushes fiercely under his gaze, as a look of understanding spreads across the professor’s face. But the professor doesn’t join in with the students’ snickering. Instead, he nods his head respectfully toward Elizabeth, greeting her not in the way a teacher greets a student, or in the way a man greets a woman… but as one doctor greeting another.

When Elizabeth Blackwell was accepted into New York’s Geneva Medical College in 1847, she became the first woman to study medicine in US history. Her struggle to gain admission to medical school was fraught with obstacles. And even after being admitted, she is forced to endure the mockery of her classmates on a daily basis, trying to overcome the rank sexism of the medical establishment and proving that women can achieve the same level of academic success as men. After graduating, Elizabeth will go on to trailblaze a role for women in medicine, becoming a hero to many young female doctors and an icon of the women’s rights movement, a glittering career that began when Elizabeth Blackwell graduated from medical school on January 23rd, 1849.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is January 23rd, 1849: Elizabeth Blackwell Becomes America’s First Woman Doctor.

Act One: No Country for Young Women

It’s 1844 in an elementary school in Henderson, Kentucky, about five years before Elizabeth Blackwell graduates from medical school.

Elizabeth stands at the front of a classroom giving a science lesson. The twenty-two-year-old teacher observes her students while they grapple with the task they’ve just been assigned. As her eyes scan the room, one of her students - a girl in the front row - stops working and looks up at Elizabeth.

Elizabeth glares and says admonishingly: “Finished already?” The child freezes for a moment, blushes, and then hurriedly looks down at her desk. Elizabeth strides over and scrutinizes the girl’s paper. To her surprise, she sees that every answer is complete and correct.

After class, as the students file out of the room, Elizabeth beckons the girl over. The student tentatively approaches, her eyes downcast. But when she addresses the girl, Elizabeth’s voice is full of tender encouragement, saying: “You are a fine student, but your concentration mustimprove if you are to realize your potential.” The girl nods. But Elizabeth isn’t finished. She continues: “Ours is not a society that rewards intelligence in women. If you wish to succeed in life, to makesomething of yourself, you absolutely must…”

But Elizabeth doesn’t finish her sentence. She trails off, lost in thought…

Elizabeth knows full well that nineteenth-century America is no place for ambitious or free-thinking women. Prevailing ideology dictates that a woman’s primary function is as a wife and mother - or as a schoolteacher or a nurse if she is unmarried. Elizabeth wants to encourage this promising young student to persevere with her education. But such advice feels hollow. Being an intelligent, educated woman in present-day America is more of a curse than a blessing, and Elizabeth suddenly feels terribly sorry - both for herself and for the bright-eyed girl standing before her.

Without another word, Elizabeth dismisses the girl. And at the end of the school day, Elizabeth packs up her things and starts the walk home to her lodgings.

It’s an unseasonably warm autumn afternoon, with the temperature in the high seventies. The weather feels especially uncomfortable for Elizabeth, who was born and raised in the cooler climates of Bristol, England. As she strolls through downtown Henderson, her long petticoat trailing through the dust, Elizabeth’s mind drifts back to her teenage years in Cincinnati, where her family emigrated after a fire destroyed her father’s sugarcane business in England.

At the thought of her father, who died five years ago, tears well in the young woman’s eyes. Samuel Blackwell exerted a profound influence over Elizabeth and her eight siblings, teaching them that each and every child should have the opportunity to develop their talents, regardless of their sex. Recognizing Elizabeth’s academic gifts, Samuel paid for his daughter’s private tuition, cultivating her intellectual development.

But as her schooling progressed, the inequality between men and women in society only grew more stark to Elizabeth. No matter how advanced her education, the opportunities available to her remained few and far between. Feeling powerless to do anything about this injustice, and needing some way to earn a living, Elizabeth took a job as a schoolteacher in Kentucky.

But after just a few months in this town, Elizabeth has grown disillusioned with teaching. She believes there are more impactful ways in which she can contribute to society. Lately, she has been thinking about something a sick friend told her on her deathbed. The dying woman said she wished she’d been treated by a femaledoctor. Maybe, her friend thought, a female doctor would have better understood her pain and suffering.

Elizabeth knows most people would scoff at the idea of a female physician. But ever since that conversation, Elizabeth has not been able to stop thinking about it. Even today, as she strolls through the streets of Henderson, the thought of it makes her giddy. If a woman could become a doctor - the most respected profession - it would make a mockery of the misconception at the heart of this injustice: that women are intellectually inferior to men.

Soon, Elizabeth arrives at her lodgings. She spends the evening trying to relax before going to bed. But her eyes won’t stay shut. She can’t bear the thought of waking up, walking to school, and doing the whole thing over again.

Eventually, Elizabeth decides that she’s had enough of teaching, so she quits her job in Kentucky and returns to Cincinnati, determined to study for a place at medical school.

To save money for college expenses, Elizabeth takes up a teaching post at a female seminary in Asheville, North Carolina. She lodges with the school’s founder, a former physician who grants Elizabeth access to his library of medical books.

Elizabeth spends hours poring over the texts. She feels lonely and friendless, having chosen a path that diverges drastically from other women her age, they are all now marrying and having children. And plagued by doubt, Elizabeth frequently turns to prayer, asking God if she’s doing the right thing. And to Elizabeth’s relief, God’s answer is always a resounding yes.

By the summer of 1847, Elizabeth has saved enough money to start applying for medical schools. She travels to the coast and boards a steamship bound for Philadelphia, home of the country’s finest schools. Standing on the deck of the ship, Elizabeth gazes out across the sparkling ocean. When her bonnet comes loose in the wind, she removes it, savoring the feeling of the salty breeze in her long, dark hair.

Elizabeth knows the hardest stage of her journey is about to begin. But the obstacles in her path will not deter the young woman; instead, they spur her on, making her even more determined to overcome society’s prejudices and do something unprecedented.

Act Two: Application Denied

It’s late summer 1847; two years before Elizabeth Blackwell earns her medical degree.

Elizabeth hikes up her long ruffled skirt as she climbs the stone steps of a medical school in Philadelphia. The twenty-six-year-old strides through the doors and into the imposing oak-paneled lobby. She radiates self-assurance, but beneath the surface, Elizabeth is wracked with nerves. She’s about to have an interview with the college admissions board, and she worries that if this doesn’t work out, she might not get another chance.

After arriving in Philadelphia two months ago, Elizabeth wrote to every single medical school in the city and New York – twenty-nine in total. So far, she has received nothing but rejections. Most of her letters go unanswered at all. Those colleges that do reply are incredulous that a woman would aspire to be a doctor in the first place. Desperate, Elizabeth has cast her net wider, applying to less prestigious colleges in rural parts of Pennsylvania and New York state. And although she remains committed to her goal, the constant rejections are beginning to chip away at the young woman’s confidence. 

But Elizabeth isn’t entirely alone in Philadelphia. A local physician, Dr. Joseph Warrington, is a friend of the Blackwell family. And Joseph supports Elizabeth’s attempt to become the first female admitted into medical school in America, so he’s decided to try and help. He contacted an old associate, who happens to be on the faculty of a small college in Philadelphia, and arranged for Elizabeth to have an interview.

Now, as Elizabeth approaches the door to the faculty head’s office, she experiences a surge of optimism. Perhaps, she wonders, the stars have aligned to make this moment possible. Either way, Elizabeth is grateful for the opportunity and determined to make the most of it.

She sits down opposite a panel of gray-haired academics. The head of the faculty looks Elizabeth up and down and smiles. He brandishes the letter he received from Dr. Warrington and tells Elizabeth how much he admires her clarity of purpose. Then he adds that he wishes his own students would show a similar level of enthusiasm for the study of medicine. Elizabeth thanks him, but she hasn’t come here to be flattered. She explains to the panel that she has completed the required reading, and she believes she is more than capable of studying medicine alongside their male students.

The smile fades from the face of the faculty head. He nods sharply and removes his spectacles. When he looks back at Elizabeth, the kindness has gone from his eyes, and his voice is a degree colder. He tells Elizabeth that her ambition to study medicine is an impractical pipedream and that if she desires a career in the medical profession, then perhaps she should consider nursing instead.

By the time the interview ends, Elizabeth is seething.

A short while later, she emerges onto the busy street, flushed with anger. She takes a moment to try and gather her thoughts but her mind incessantly replays the faculty head’s patronizing suggestion. Nursing is an admirable calling, but for Elizabeth, becoming a doctor isn’t a career choice - it’s an attempt to change society, to prove to everybody that the status quo is wrongand immoral.

Elizabeth returns to her lodgings deflated. She’s staying at the home of a local physician named Dr. Elder. And when she tells the kindly Dr. Elder about her latest disappointment, the doctor nods with compassion. He reminds Elizabeth that most college boards believe women to be intellectually inferior to men, and thus consider it irresponsible to allow them to study medicine. But Elizabeth has a different theory. Shesuspects the faculty members knowthat women are just as capable as men. She thinks the reason they refuse to admit her is because they fear the competition. She wonders aloud, why would they furnish Elizabeth with the stick to break their heads with?

As the weeks pass, and more rejection letters arrive, Elizabeth’s spirits sink even lower. But then, in October, when the rainy weather and gloomy evenings seem a reflection of Elizabeth’s mood, a letter arrives from Geneva Medical College in New York. Elizabeth barely even remembers applying to this obscure institution, but she unseals the envelope and starts to read.

As she scans the letter, her heart begins to pound. The words on the page don’t seem real, because what they represent is nothing short of a miracle: she has been accepted.

In the coming days, Elizabeth will travel north to western New York State. Classes will have already commenced, so Elizabeth will be forced to rush to acquire the necessary books and equipment. Her appearance on campus will cause a stir, as students, staff, and townspeople alike catch wind of this unusual new arrival.

And over the next two years, Elizabeth will work hard to prove her worth, excelling in class and impressing her professors. By January of 1849, with graduation approaching, Elizabeth will find herself on the cusp of becoming America’s first woman doctor, as she prepares to walk out of medical school – and into history.

Act Three: It’s Not Easy To Be A Pioneer

It’s January 23rd, 1849.

Elizabeth stands at the window of her lodgings in Geneva, New York, wistfully gazing out across the snow-dusted rooftops of the town.

The past two years have been a whirlwind of concentrated study and new experiences. Every day, she has been forced to overcome the mockery of her fellow students, and the institutional sexism of the medical establishment, all in order to get where she is today: the morning of her graduation.

But Elizabeth’s excitement at gaining her diploma is tempered with trepidation for the future. During the course of her studies, she’s been treated as a second-class student by doctors, as well as patients who refused to be treated by a female. Time and again, she has been reminded of just how difficult her life will be as a woman doctor.

Elizabeth’s thoughts are interrupted by the sound of her name being called. Turning, she sees her brother Henry who’s come to town for her big day. Dressed in his Sunday best, Henry smiles and tells Elizabeth that it’s nearly half past ten. They should be on their way.

Elizabeth and Henry walk through town toward the church where the graduation ceremony is being held. The audience has already taken their seats by the time the Blackwells arrive. Hundreds of heads turn and stare as Elizabeth and Henry quietly enter the church and settle down on a pew in the back left corner.

The president of the college, Dr. Hale, takes to the podium and begins calling out the names of graduating students. One by one, the young freshly minted doctors step up to receive their diplomas, bowing as Dr. Hale recites a Latin benediction.

Finally, after all the men are called, it’s Elizabeth’s turn. When the doctor says her name, there’s a marked shift in atmosphere in the church - an audible intake of breath - as the audience prepares to witness something many thought they’d never see.

As Elizabeth approaches the podium, Dr. Hale removes his hat - a gesture of respect reserved only for her. After handing Elizabeth her diploma, the president then bows, and Elizabeth bows back.

But instead of going straight back to her seat, Elizabeth hesitates. She glances at the scroll of parchment in her hands that has such enormous historical significance. She looks up and says to Dr. Hale: “Sir, I thank you, by the help of the Most High, it shall be the effort of my life to shed honor upon your diploma.”

After graduating, Elizabeth will go on to found her own medical practice, opening the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. She will become a mentor to other aspiring female doctors, both in the United States and the UK, and will later establish the London School of Medicine for Women, the first institution in Britain to train female doctors. When discussing the challenges she faced throughout her life, Elizabeth will sum up her experiences by declaring: “it is not easy to be a pioneer – but oh, it is fascinating!” - a fitting epitaph for someone with a trailblazing career, one that began when Elizabeth Blackwell became America’s first woman doctor on January 23rd, 1849.


Next onHistory Daily. January 24th, 41 CE: The notorious Roman emperor Caligula is assassinated at the hands of his own bodyguards.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack. 

Sound design by Derek Behrens.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.