Elizabeth Blackwell

Elizabeth Blackwell, a Walnut Hills contemporary of Caroline and Harriet Beecher Stowe, was the first woman to earn an MD in the United States, and her sister Emily was the third. Both went on to practice medicine. The Blackwell family emigrated from England when the girls were children. In 1838 their father relocated from New York to Cincinnati with the entrepreneurial dream of producing sugar from Midwestern beets, as a commercial alternative to the cane sugar produced in the South and in the Caribbean by slave labor.
This prototypical Queen City story ended badly. Mr. Blackwell took ill and died within a few months of the family’s arrival; Elizabeth and two of her sisters had reached young adulthood, but their widowed mother had no means of supporting them or several younger siblings. So in 1838 the three young women, out of necessity rather than educational ambition, opened The Cincinnati English and French Academy for Young Ladies in the family home, accepting both day and boarding students. Elizabeth’s decision to become a Unitarian in 1844 shocked many of the families of her students, and the resulting withdrawals caused the school to fail. Elizabeth briefly taught at a school in Kentucky, but returned to Cincinnati after a few months.
The family’s circumstances improved; she returned to find her brothers in business and the family “removed to the pleasant suburb of Walnut Hills where the well-known Lane Theological Seminary … was situated.” Elizabeth determined to become a doctor through the prestigious route of professional medical school. Well ensconced in the intellectual circles around the Seminary, she floated her ideas on the Hill.
“Mrs. Beecher Stowe thought, after conversation with Professor Stowe, that my idea was impracticable though she confessed, after some talk, that if carried out it might be highly useful. She also spoke of the strong prejudice that would exist, which I must either crush or be crushed by. I felt a little disappointed at her judgement …”
Blackwell determined to raise the $3000 she would need for medical school on her own; she found a position teaching music at a school in North Carolina run by a former doctor who allowed her to study using his old textbooks. She did not return to Cincinnati. Despite the closure of the school where she worked, and rejection of her application by the best medical schools in Philadelphia and New York City, she found a place at Geneva Medical College in upstate New York, and received her MD in 1849, the first awarded to a woman in the US. Frustrated in her attempts at more advanced training in America, she travelled to Paris for further study.
Her sister Emily – who was refused admission to Geneva Medical Collage – became the third American woman to graduate from medical school when she completed the course at Western Reserve in Cleveland in 1854. The two practiced together during the Civil War, mostly training nurses. They later established a clinic and women’s medical school in New York. Eventually Elizabeth moved to London, while Emily took over the running of the New York institution.