This Day in World History
January 23, 1849
Elizabeth Blackwell Becomes First Woman to Receive a Medical Degree
On January 23, 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell strode to the front of the Presbyterian church in Geneva, New York, to receive her diploma from Benjamin Hale, president of Geneva Medical College. The ceremony made Blackwell — who graduated first in her class — the first woman in the modern world to receive a medical degree.
Blackwell was born to a wealthy and progressive-minded English family that moved to the United States in the 1830s, when she was around ten. She became a teacher, though that profession did not engage her. One day, a dying friend told her that she might have endured her disease better if she had been attended by a female physician. The conversation planted the idea of becoming a doctor in Blackwell’s mind.
She received some rudimentary training in medicine in the home of a local physician and began applying to medical school. Geneva accepted her, in part because the student body — to whom the question of her admission had been put — treated the idea of a female medical student as a joke. Blackwell faced the hostility of some teachers, students, and townspeople, though she eventually disarmed critics with her dedication and seriousness.
Prejudice made it difficult for Blackwell to establish a practice after her graduation. In 1853, she opened a clinic for women in New York City. She was eventually joined by her sister Emily and by Marie E. Zakrzewska, both of whom she had encouraged to earn medical degrees. The clinic grew and in 1857 was renamed the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. Eleven years later, Blackwell opened the Woman’s Medical College associated with the infirmary. In 1869, she returned to England, where she lived and worked for the rest of her life.