A Moral Crusade

Head and shoulder portrait of Elizabeth Blackwell

Head and shoulder portrait of Elizabeth Blackwell (c. 1842-1852)

Courtesy of Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute

The calling to medicine did not develop for Elizabeth at a young age, nor did it grow out of an innate desire to tend the sick and injured. It grew slowly from a plea made by a friend, while dying of cancer, who yearned for a woman's care. The idea did not immediately appeal to a young woman interested in philosophy and metaphysics, whose family would not have the financial means to support a costly endeavor, and who found illness and the human body distasteful. Even the idea of advancing the role of women and championing women’s rights did not seem to align with attaining a medical degree. Notably, medical education in America was not on par with the more rigorous study offered in Europe. Americans tended to view doctors, who often did more harm than good, as little more than tradesman; and the women who peddled elixirs and offered abortions were scorned by Elizabeth. It took time, and exposure to ideas of female aptitude and universal equality, to convince Elizabeth of not only her need, but the need of all women, to have access to a range of professions and outlets for their abilities. The role of physician was as good a place to build in-roads as any, and her friend’s timely suggestion was still in her mind. She cemented the idea and began to talk seriously of medical school in the Spring of 1845. To achieve this end, she would have to overcome not only institutionalized discrimination and societal norms, but also her own aversions.

Once her crusade was begun, she could not set it aside, though the path was long and fraught with discouragement. To accumulate the necessary funds, she moved to Ashville, NC. She was hired to teach music at the school of Reverend John Dickson, a former physician, but the school closed in 1846. With Dr. Dickson’s introduction, Elizabeth moved to Charleston and began her preliminary studies under the tutelage of his brother Dr. Samuel Henry Dickson. Dr. Dickson had a medical library that held more than 1,000 volumes and believed it feasible for a woman to study medicine. Elizabeth taught music at his sister-in-law’s boarding school and availed herself of the knowledge contained in Dr. Dickson’s library. In May of 1847, Elizabeth left for Philadelphia with the support of Dr. Dickson and an introduction to Dr. Joseph Warrington, a Quaker who was sympathetic to her cause, though he assured her that pursuing education as a nurse would be much simpler. With her savings in order, some preliminary knowledge attained, and a few useful acquaintances, she turned attention to her medical school applications.

"The Vertebral Column" from The Anatomy of the Human Body

The Vertebral Column from The Anatomy of the Human Body by J. Crueveilhier ed. by Granville Sharp Pattison MD (1847)

From Archives & Special Collections, Upstate Medical University

"It was at this time that the suggestion of studying medicine was first presented to me, by a lady friend. This friend finally died of a painful disease, the delicate nature of which made the methods of treatment a constant suffering to her. She once said to me: 'You are fond of study, have health and leisure; why not study medicine?' But I at once repudiated the suggestion as an impossible one, saying that I hated everything connected with the body, and could not bear the sight of a medical book."

Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women: Autobiographical Sketches by Elizabeth Blackwell (1895)

From a young age, Elizabeth considered illness a sign of weakness. She rarely admitted to feeling unwell. Her studies had always been in areas of the mind: philosophy, metaphysics, religion. To entertain the idea of studying medicine, she needed to find a higher purpose to the pursuit.

Harriet Beecher Stowe portrait

Harriet Beecher Stowe photographic portrait (c. 1865)

Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

"Mrs. [Harriet] Beecher Stowe thought, after conversation with Professor Stowe, that my idea [of becoming a physician] was impracticable, though, she confessed, after some talk, that if carried out it might be highly useful."

Excerpt from a diary (1845)

The Blackwell family's social circle in Cincinnati included Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom's Cabin) and other members of her notable family, which gave the Blackwell women the chance to expand their minds and further develop their idealistic mores.

The Religion of Health: A Lecture

Title page from "The Religion of Health: A Lecture" by Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell (undated)

From Archives & Special Collections, Upstate Medical University.

"I was overwhelmed with sudden terror of what I was undertaking. In an agony of mental despair I cried out 'Oh God, help me, support me!'…Suddenly, overwhelmingly, an answer came. A glorious presence…flooded my soul…All doubt as to the future, all hesitation as to the rightness of my purpose, left me, and never in after-life returned."

Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women: Autobiographical Sketches by Elizabeth Blackwell (1895)

Dr. Blackwell's views on many issues, including health, were intertwined with her spirituality. Though she changed denominations multiple times, she had a strong, life-long devotion to religion that would drive her practice of medicine and her commitments to various social reforms.