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NIH Record

NLM Exhibit Commemorates First Woman Physician

One hundred and fifty years ago, on Jan. 23, 1849, a young woman ascended the platform of the Presbyterian church in Geneva, N.Y., and received from the hands of the president of Geneva Medical College a diploma conferring upon her the degree of doctor of medicine. Thus, after many years of determined effort, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to complete a course of study at a medical college and receive the M.D. degree.

In commemoration of this event, the National Library of Medicine has mounted an exhibit entitled, "'That Girl There Is Doctor in Medicine': Elizabeth Blackwell, America's First Woman M.D." The exhibit, curated by Carol Clausen of the library's History of Medicine Division, is located at the entrance to the division, just off the NLM lobby (Bldg. 38). Items illustrating Blackwell's admission to medical school, her experiences as a medical student, her graduation, and her subsequent medical career are displayed.

When her initial attempts to gain admission to a well-established medical school met with failure, Blackwell persevered, applying to a dozen smaller colleges. As she recounted in her autobiography, Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women, "At last, to my immense relief (though not surprise, for failure never seemed possible), I received the following letter from the medical department of a small university town in the western part of the State of New York." The single acceptance came from Geneva Medical College. Accompanying the letter from the dean was a resolution by the students, affirming their support of her endeavors. Displayed in the exhibit is a formal copy on parchment of the acceptance letter and resolution, which Blackwell had copied from the original and esteemed as "one of my most valued possessions."

Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell at age 38 in a pencil drawing by Comtesse de Charnacee.

The exhibit includes items illustrating Blackwell's life as a student, including a set of her class notes on materia medica, pictures of the Geneva College buildings, a college circular, and class admission tickets. Most intriguing is the manuscript syllabus of James Webster, professor of anatomy and Blackwell's strongest supporter. In her diary, Blackwell describes an anatomy class on a day soon after her arrival as "a trying day...a terrible ordeal...Some of the students blushed, some were hysterical...My delicacy was certainly shocked ..." The syllabus reveals the source of embarrassment.

The academic career begun with such difficulty was completed in triumph. Blackwell had gained the support of the students, faculty and townspeople, and graduated first in her class. Her brother Henry, who attended the graduation, described the ceremony in a letter to his family and noted the special esteem in which she was held. In his address to the graduating class, printed as a brochure, Dean Charles A. Lee commended Blackwell's "perseverance under difficulties, and obstacles next to insurmountable." Her thesis, on ship fever (i.e. typhus), was given the unusual honor of publication in the Buffalo Medical Journal.

After 2 years of further study in Paris and London, Blackwell settled in New York City. Her efforts to establish a medical practice were met by what she described as "a blank wall of social and professional antagonism." Instead, she turned to social and hygienic reform and the promotion of the medical education of women. She founded a free clinic, the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, which still exists as the New York Infirmary/Beekman Downtown Hospital, and the Woman's Medical College of the New York Infirmary. The exhibit includes circulars and catalogues from both of these institutions, some of Blackwell's own publications, and several portraits of her.

The exhibit will be on display until June 30. Flyers about it will be available at NLM or by mail from the History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD 20894.

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