Elizabeth Blackwell was a British-American physician and first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States. Born near Bristol, England, Blackwell and her family moved to New York City when she was 11 years old, after a fire destroyed her father's business. The family moved to Jersey City, New Jersey (1835) and then to Cincinnati, Ohio (1838), where her father died not long after. To support the family, Blackwell and her mother and sisters opened a private school. Later, Blackwell accepted a teaching assignment in Kentucky, but bored with teaching and desiring to avoid marriage, she subsequently decided to pursue a career in medicine.
After privately studying with male doctors who supported her cause, Blackwell applied to medical schools throughout the northeastern United States, including Harvard, Yale, and Bowdoin. All of these institutions turned down her application. Finally, in 1848 Geneva College in west central New York accepted her as a student. While attending Geneva, Blackwell faced a difficult year at a school hostile to her presence, although she eventually earned the respect of her classmates and professors. A summer program in 1848 at the Philadelphia Hospital in Pennsylvania allowed her to practice medicine for the first time. The young physicians there were hostile to her, however, and offered her no assistance.
Blackwell graduated from Geneva College in 1849 and soon after became a naturalized American citizen. She then left for England to continue her medical studies, ultimately spending time in Paris at the state-run La Maternité, where she completed a midwifery course. It was there that she contracted ophthalmia, an eye infection that left her blind in one eye, ending her plans to become a surgeon.
Blackwell returned to New York in 1851 but was unable to practice medicine for several years because no institution would hire her. During this period she adopted an orphan, Katharine (Kitty) Barry, who remained her lifelong companion. She also wrote and delivered a series of papers on the importance of good hygiene, which won her the support of The Society of Friends, a Quaker organization. The Quakers began referring patients to Blackwell, and her practice began to grow. Because no one would rent space to her for her practice, she purchased a house in a run-down section of New York and opened an office in 1853; four years later this one-room dispensary became the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. Her sister Emily, also a physician, and Dr. Marie Zakrzewska joined her in this endeavor.
In 1858 Blackwell returned to England to lecture and practice. One year later she became the first woman to have her name placed on the Medical Register of the United Kingdom. In 1859 Blackwell returned to New York. Shortly thereafter the Civil War began, temporarily halting her plans to open a women's medical college. This dream was finally realized in 1868 when the Women's Medical College of the New York Infirmary was established.
Blackwell returned to England in 1869, leaving the operation of the infirmary and college to her sister. She remained abroad for the rest of her life except for a visit in 1906 to the United States. In London, she continued her work as a physician and promoter of women's medical education. She helped establish the National Health Society in 1871. In 1875 she accepted a professorship of gynecology at the New Hospital (now called the Royal Free Hospital) of the London School of Medicine for Women.
Elizabeth Blackwell died in 1910, three years after a fall from which she never fully recovered.