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Elizabeth Blackwell’s 200th: The Doctors Blackwell and Their Legacies

Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in the United States to receive a medical degree, which she put to great use when she opened in NoHo the first infirmary run by women for women. Born on February 3, 1821, in Bristol England, Blackwell and her family moved to the United States in 1832. Following the terminal illness and death of a friend who felt she would have been better served by a female doctor, Elizabeth decided to pursue a medical degree. Following in her footsteps, Elizabeth’s sister Emily was known as actually the more brilliant physician, according to the Blackwells’ biographer, Janice P. Nimura

Elizabeth Blackwell Portrait

Now at #11 on the New York Times bestseller list, Nimura’s book “The Doctors Blackwell” tracks Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell’s lives and their work bringing medicine to women — and women to medicine. Elizabeth Blackwell, the book explains, believed from an early age that she was destined for a mission beyond the scope of “ordinary” womanhood. The book explores the sisters’ allies (like Florence Nightengale), enemies, and their enduring partnership. 

Indeed, most things for the Blackwells were a struggle. For example, every school Elizabeth applied to turned her down, until 1847 when Geneva Medical College in Western New York State accepted her. The story goes that the faculty, assuming that the all-male student body would never agree to a woman joining their ranks, allowed them to vote on her admission. As a joke, they voted “yes,” and she gained admittance, despite the reluctance of most students and faculty.

With a life story that carried her around the world and back to New York, where she founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children in 1857 at 58 Bleecker Street, Elizabeth Blackwell met adversity with creativity and resolve. If no one would rent her a space to practice her trade, she would have to buy the building herself. And so the Infirmary outlived her, serving the community until 1981. The college that she’d founded for women doctors, however, did not survive in part because of her achievements; she had a great hand in pushing all medical schools to open their doors to women. The women’s college had “held open the door for women until broader gates had swung wide for their admission,” Blackwell said. 

Elizabeth Blackwell teaching women medicine at her College

We have written extensively about Elizabeth Blackwell at Village Preservation: the locations significant to her life and work in our neighborhoods, the Blackwells’ dispensary on East 7th Street, and her work generally. In 2018, Village Preservation worked with building owner Jill Platner and others to place an historic plaque on the former home of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children at 58 Bleecker Street at Crosby Street. We were proud to be joined by Blackwell’s great grand niece and representatives of New York Presbyterian Hospital (the successor to the infirmary) and scholars and activists in the field of women’s health and education. You can see images and video of that ceremony here.

We also hosted a pre-publication lecture with Janice P. Nimura (watch below!), who took us deep into the lives of Elizabeth and Emily, who died within months of each other, never married, and worked closely together for their whole lives, though they are buried on different continents. Nimura wrote: “In 1910 when the Blackwell Sisters died, there were more than nine thousand women doctors in the United States, about six percent of all physicians. Today thirty-five percent of physicians — and slightly more than half of all medical students — are female.”

These numbers point to the opening up of the medical world for women. The Blackwells are undoubtedly part of the legacy of women in medicine, as evidenced by the Elizabeth Blackwell Award, given annually by the American Medical Women’s Association (AMWA) to a woman physician who has made the most outstanding contributions to the cause of women in the field of medicine.

The Blackwells’ legacy goes beyond medicine too. 58 Bleecker Street’s current owner, Jill Platner, is renovating the building to highlight its groundbreaking history as a location for women in business, given that running the Infirmary was a feat of financial acumin too which complemented Elizabeth Blackwell’s skills as a doctor and educator. 

Janice P. Nimura (left) and Dr. Vivian W. Pinn (right)

To discuss these varied legacies of Village-based medicine and business, we will be joined on February 9, 2021 by Janice Nimura; Jill Platner; and AMWA Blackwell Awardee Dr. Vivian W. Pinn, the first full-time Director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health (ORWH) from 1991-2011 at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and NIH Associate Director for Research on Women’s Health. We will explore the Blackwells’ legacy locally in the Infirmary building itself, and in much broader ways through the work of women in medicine and changes they wrought in the field of public health. Join us

And, watch Nimura’s pre-publication talk here: https://youtu.be/k1s-GhPHiEU

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