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Women in Medicine: How Female Doctors Have Changed the Face of Medicine

Despite the variety of challenges that women in medicine have faced, today’s female physicians continue to inspire and save lives every day


According to the AMA website, in 1970 fewer than eight percent of physicians in the United States were women. According to the 2011 Physician Characteristics and Distribution study, by 2009 that percentage had increased to thirty, and the number of female doctors had grown by more than six fold. Women have made and continue to make vast progress in the field of medicine, and there have been many exceptional female doctors whose accomplishments deserve to be celebrated.

In “Woman as Physician,” H.B. Elliot describes the story of Elizabeth Blackwell: as the first woman in the United States to receive a medical degree, she was one of those doctors. When Dr. Blackwell graduated from Geneva Medical College in 1849, it would still be seventy years before women would be allowed to vote and 120 before women’s admission to Yale College.  At the time, the Blackwells and other Quakers were some of the few people who believed in the equality of men and women. Indeed, when Geneva Medical College considered Dr. Blackwell’s application, the faculty asked the students to vote on her admission, with the condition that if one student objected they would not admit her. The students thought the entire issue was a joke and sent a facetious letter urging her acceptance. Even after earning her degree, Dr. Blackwell was banned from practice in most hospitals. Undeterred, in 1857 she and Dr. Marie Zakrzewska founded their own infirmary in New York. Later, during the Civil War, Dr. Blackwell trained many women to be nurses, and she eventually added a Women’s Medical College to her infirmary in order to train other female physicians.

Celebrating 150 Years of Women in Medicine: the Legacy of Elizabeth Blackwell

Nineteen ninety-nine marks the 150th anniversary of the entrance of women into the modern regular medical profession


On January 23, 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell (February 3, 1821 – May 31, 1910) received her M.D. from Geneva Medical College (the precursor of the Syracuse Health Science Center College of Medicine), the first such degree earned by a woman anywhere in the world.

She was born in Bristol, England, the third daughter among the nine children of a sugar refiner, Samuel Blackwell, and his wife, Hannah. The family was very close-knit, and all felt a spirit of reform, dissent, and progressive political thinking. For example, they believed in free and equal education for both sexes, a radical notion in those days. Most of the children, not just Elizabeth, would later become prominent in social reform movements. When the father’s business collapsed in 1832, the family left England to start over in America.

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