You might have thought the first woman to run an American hospital was a sister. You’d be right, but for the wrong reasons.
Elizabeth Blackwell, M.D., was not a nun. But she and her sibling, Emily Blackwell, M.D., were the groundbreaking founders of a hospital even before the sisters of the Catholic Church had begun to establish their impressive health care legacy in this country.
Elizabeth Blackwell is credited as being the first woman to earn a medical degree when she did so in 1849. After being turned away by numerous other medical schools, small Geneva College in rural New York sent her an acceptance letter.
The path was not smooth, however. By some accounts, her acceptance was made as a practical joke. Segregated in the lectures and excluded from labs, Elizabeth Blackwell’s perseverance earned her respect and she ended up graduating first in her class.
Her sister Emily’s path to a doctor of medicine was also met with resistance from the male-dominated establishment. She first was enrolled at Rush Medical College in Chicago, but pressure from the state medical society forced her out after a year. Next came many slammed doors at medical schools until Western Reserve University’s medical school in Cleveland accepted her. After earning an M.D. from Western Reserve, Emily urged another woman, Berlin-born Marie Zakrzewska, to attend the Cleveland institution.
Each of the women found it equally difficult to find roles in male-run hospitals or to earn respect. At that time, a female doctor often was merely suspected as an abortionist. The Blackwell sisters traveled to Britain and Scotland, but were as coldly welcomes as the had been here.
As was often the case in those days, the women found they had to make a place for themselves. Back in New York in the late 1850s, the sisters along with Zakrzewska worked to raise enough funds to open their own small hospital. On May 12, 1857, the New York Infirmary for Women and Children opened its doors.
The three women served as the resident physicians there, with Emily Blackwell doing a majority of surgeries, given her older sister’s poor eyesight. After two years, Zakrzewska struck out on her own to open up the nation’s second woman-run hospital, Boston’s New England Hospital for Women and Children.
Shortly after, Elizabeth returned to England to practice medicine again. She would stay there for her entire career.
It was Emily Blackwell who stayed the course with the New York Infirmary. She managed the hospital for more than 40 years, overseeing surgery, nursing and the financials. She was successful in providing for long-term funding, having lobbied in the state capital for state funding. Under her capable hands, the infirmary grew from a rented, 16-room house to a hospital building that by 1874 served more than 7,000 patients a year.