State of Affairs

During today’s show on Single Moms by Choice, our guest Andrea Engber mentioned in passing that Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female medical doctor in the United States, was also an adoptive single mother. I thought I would follow up on this little piece of trivia and found an amazing story (and just in time for Women’s History Month).eblackwell2.jpg

She was born in Bristol, England in 1821, and 11 years later her family came to the United States, spending time in New York City and Cincinnati. As an adult, Blackwell spent some time teaching right here in the Commonwealth, in Henderson, Kentucky, saving money for med school. After being rejected by sixteen other schools, she went to Geneva College (now Hobart College) in New York, and on January 11, 1849, became the first woman in the U.S. to earn a medical degree.

She traveled to England and France, but wasn’t allowed to practice medicine there, so she returned to New York, where, in 1854, she adopted a seven-year-old Irish orphan named Kitty. Blackwell practiced medicine independently, then, with her sisters, Blackwell opened the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, in 1857. In 1868, they expanded the infirmary to include a Women’s Medical College – the first school solely devoted to providing women with medical educations.

By the time Elizabeth Blackwell died in 1910, female physicians in the United States numbered 7,000.


Changing the Face of Medicine: Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell

Women’s History Biographies: Elizabeth Blackwell

Photos from the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, by way of the website Changing the Face of Medicine. The bottom photo shows Elizabeth and her daughter, in 1905.

Laura is LPM's Director of Podcasts & Special Projects.