Success to Your Wings!

portrait of Elizabeth Blackwell

Portrait of Elizabeth Blackwell by W.A. Thomas (1877)

Courtesy of Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Blackwell Family Papers.

After Dr. Blackwell returned to America the Infirmary continued operations as usual, with the exception of a move to a larger building. The onset of the Civil War diverted efforts for a few years. Elizabeth served as the only officer of the Women’s Central Association for Relief, being responsible for selecting women suitable for training as nurses. In spite of the central role filled by its founder, the Infirmary was not selected as one of the hospitals designated as training sites for nurses. This insult was multiplied by the appointment of Dorothea Dix as Matron General and Superintendent of Women Nurses, regardless of Elizabeth’s stronger medical qualifications. Despite the general upheaval and personal affronts brought about by the war, the sister’s plans seemed to proceed apace. Business was steady, funds from their benefactress were used to build a small sanitarium outside the city, and, despite original intentions, they found themselves preparing to open a medical college for women.

As the Infirmary attracted more women graduates looking for medical training, the caliber of physician they received was underwhelming. Despite the success of women’s colleges in Philadelphia and Boston to attract both donors and students, the Blackwells abhorred the low quality of education the students received. The women’s colleges only managed to recruit lesser faculty, and the Eclectic Medical Schools, like the one in Syracuse, were viewed with disdain. Their intention was to help women obtain the same level of training as men, not a sub-standard alternative. The time had come for the sisters to open their own school, and they intended to offer an education that surpassed even what was required at the men’s colleges. On November 2, 1868 the Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary was opened. This auspicious occasion marked the end of the work the sisters would undertake together. Emily would take on leadership of the College and the Infirmary and Elizabeth would turn her attention to other causes.

Letter, Alice Stone Blackwell to Elizabeth Blackwell

Letter, Alice Stone Blackwell to Elizabeth Blackwell (October 12, 1906)

Courtesy of Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Blackwell Family Papers.

“It is a great thing for your nieces to have in you and Aunt Emily an example to live up to; and I think that the greatest gift that any person can gift to another is inspiration. I shall often remember how, one day when I said I must fly, you answered, ‘Success to your wings!’ That will come back to me often when I am rushing hither and yon, and I thank you for it…”

Excerpt from letter from Alice Stone Blackwell to Elizabeth Blackwell (October 12, 1906)

Many members of the Blackwell family were active in the Suffrage and Equal Rights movements. Dr. Blackwell's niece Alice Stone Blackwell was the editor of The Women's Journal and urged a reconciliation between her mother, Lucy Stone Blackwell and Susan B. Anthony that led to the establishment of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

The Medical Register (United Kingdom)

The Medical Register (United Kingdom) from 1859 shows Blackwell, Elizabeth with a registry date of January 1, 1859.

"It was during this visit to England that the important step was taken of placing a woman's name on the authorised Medical Register of the United Kingdom, Influential friends were desirous of keeping me in England. They presented the various testimonials of English and Continental study given by distinguished physicians and credentials of American practice to the Medical Council. On this Council...were old friends of the St. Bartholemew's days...I had the satisfaction of being enrolled as a recognised physician of my native land in the Medical Register of January 1, 1859."

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

The UK Medical Act of 1858 required registration of all medical practitioners. Though no woman in England had ever earned a medical degree, the fact that Dr. Blackwell had an MD from America and had treated a few private patients while in London allowed her to slip through the submission process. She appeared as the only women in the first medical registry as ‘Physician’. The loopholes that allowed her through, notably a degree from another country, were quickly closed.

New-York Dispensary for Women and Children, 15th Street and Livingston Place

New-York Dispensary for Women and Children, 15th Street and Livingston Place (1893)

Courtesy of the Mechanical Curator Collection. British Library.

"In addition to the usual departments of hospital and dispensary practice, which included the visiting of poor patients at their own homes, we established a sanitary visitor. This post was filled by one of our assistant physicians, whose special duty it was to give simple, practical instruction to poor mothers on the management of infants and the preservation of the health of their families. An intelligent young coloured physician, Dr. [Rebecca J.] Cole, who was one of our resident assistants, carried on his work with tact and care. Experience of its results serve to show that the establishment of such a department would be a valuable addition to every hospital."

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

Rebecca J. Cole was born in 1848 and was the first black woman to graduate from the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania (1867). Coincidentally, her thesis on “The Eye and Its Appendages” thoroughly discussed purulent ophthalmia, the disease that led to the loss of Elizabeth’s eye. Employing a black female physician did not bring much discussion from the Blackwells, who likely did not consider the color of her skin as a consideration of her qualifications.

Illustration of women medical students attending a lecture at the Women's Medical College of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children

Illustration of women medical students attending a lecture at the Women's Medical College of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children from  Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper (April 16, 1870)

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

"In 1865 the trustees of the infirmary, finding that the institution was established in public favour, applied to the Legislature for a charter conferring college powers upon it…We took this step, however, with hesitation, for our own feeling was adverse to the formation of an entirely separate school for women...They [women students associated with the infirmary] renewed their efforts, therefore, to induce some good recognised New York school to admit, under suitable arrangements, a class of students guaranteed by the infirmary, rather than add another to the list of female colleges already existing. Finding...that such arrangements could not at present be made, the trustees followed the advice of their consulting staff, obtained a college charter, and opened a subscription for a college fund."

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

By the end of the 19th century, medical education was approaching the ideals Elizabeth had espoused when she first fixed on her “moral crusade” New medical schools like Johns Hopkins and Cornell were accepting women students from the start. The purpose of the Medical College for Women had been to provide women with access to the best medical education available. They could now obtain that elsewhere, and the College closed in 1899. The Infirmary, continuing to be a successful endeavor remained open until 1981, when it merged with Beekman Downtown Hospital.

Address Delivered at the Opening of the Women's Medical College of the New York Infirmary 126 Second Avenue

Address Delivered at the Opening of the Women's Medical College of the New York Infirmary 126 Second Avenue by Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell (November 2, 1868)

From Archives & Special Collections, Upstate Medical University.

"A full course of college instruction was gradually organised, with the important improvement of establishing the subject of hygiene as one of the principle professorial chairs, thus making it an equal as well as obligatory study. Another important improvement adopted was the establishment of an Examination Board, independent of the teaching staff, a plan not then customary in the United States...and at the same time we changed the ordinary term of medical study from three to four years."

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

In 1897, the College building burned to the ground with all equipment lost. The Trustees rallied and a fundraising campaign was begun. The reports in New York papers discussed the high standards maintained and spoke of both the founders and the program with respect. The re-opening welcomes and even larger class than previous years.

"The Rise of the Physician Feminine"

"The Rise of the Physician Feminine" The Times-Dispatch, Richmond, VA (June 9, 1912)

Courtesy of the Library of Congress. Chronicling America, Historic American Newspapers.

"In 1869 the early pioneer work in America was ended. During the twenty years which followed graduation of the first woman physician, the public recognition of the justice and advantage of such a measure had steadily grown. Throughout the Northern States the free and equal entrance of women into the profession of medicine was secured. In Boston, New York, and Philadelphia special medical schools for women were sanctioned by the Legislatures, and in some long-established colleges women were received as students in the ordinary classes."

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

Dr. Blackwell's intention was to prove the capacities of women, especially to women. One of her chief complaints against the suffrage movement was that it fought against the "tyranny of men", but Dr. Blackwell firmly believed that it was the complacency of women that allowed the natural order to afford all the benefits and power to men. She believed that women needed to resist their natural propensities to subjugation in order to achieve equality. Thus, demonstrating women's abilities in a practical area like medicine furthered her intentions, even if women were being educated only with other women. She believed, based on her experiences, that once women took charge of their own potential, men would inevitably begin to view them as equals.