Elizabeth Blackwell

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Elizabeth Blackwell

Birthplace: Bristol, City of Bristol, England, United Kingdom
Death: 1910 (88-89)
England, United Kingdom
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Samuel Blackwell and Hannah Blackwell
Mother of Katherine "Kitty" Berry
Sister of Samuel Charles Blackwell; Henry Browne Blackwell; Emily Blackwell; Howard Blackwell and George Washington Blackwell

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About Elizabeth Blackwell

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Elizabeth Blackwell (3 February 1821 – 31 May 1910) was the first female doctor in the United States and the first on the UK Medical Register. She was the first openly identified woman to graduate from medical school, a pioneer in educating women in medicine in the United States, and was prominent in the emerging women's rights movement.

Early life and background Elizabeth Blackwell was born in Bristol, England and spent her early years living in a house on Wilson Street, off Portland Square, Bristol Portland Square, St Pauls, Bristol St Pauls. Her nickname was Bess, but her father called her "Little Shy". She was the third of nine children born to Samuel Blackwell and his wife, Hannah (née Lane). Blackwell could afford to give his numerous sons an education and believed that his daughters should get the same education as the boys, so he had them tutored by the house servants. While growing up, Blackwell lost six of her sisters and two of her brothers. One night when Blackwell was eleven, a fire destroyed her father's business. In 1832, the family emigrated to the United States and set up a refinery in New York City. The Blackwells were very religious Quakers, believing that all men and women were equal in the eyes of God. Due to these beliefs, they were opposed to slavery. An opportunity was presented to Samuel Blackwell that allowed him to open a refinery in Ohio, where slaves would not be needed to harvest the sugar, so the Blackwells moved to Cincinnati. Three weeks after they moved, Elizabeth's father died from biliary fever, leaving his widow and nine children in very difficult financial circumstances. Elizabeth then assisted two of her sisters in teaching a young lady's seminary.


After the death of her father, Blackwell took up a career in teaching in Kentucky to make money to pay for medical school. Blackwell found this work unpleasant. Desiring to apply herself to the practice of medicine, she took up residence in a physician's household, using her time there to study from the family's medical library. She became active in the antislavery movement (as did her brother Henry Brown Blackwell, who married Lucy Stone, a suffragist). Another brother, Samuel Charles Blackwell, married another important figure in women's rights, Antoinette Brown. In 1845, she went to Asheville, North Carolina, where she read medicine in the home of Dr. John Dickson. Afterwards, she read with his brother, Dr. Samuel Henry Dickson, in Charleston, South Carolina.

She attended Geneva Medical College in New York. She was accepted there because the faculty put it to a student vote with the stipulation that if one student objected Blackwell would be denied. The students thought her application was a hoax – and wrote to the faculty saying that they would welcome the new applicant and promised her gentlemanly treatment. When Blackwell started showing up to the classes, the all-male student body lived up to their promise to the letter. Blackwell is said to have stated that if the instructor were upset by the fact that Student No. 156 wore a bonnet, she would be pleased to remove her conspicuous headgear and take a seat at the rear of the classroom, but that she would not voluntarily absent herself from a lecture.

On 11 January 1849, Blackwell became the first woman to achieve a medical degree in the United States, graduating on 23 January 1849.

Banned from practice in most hospitals, she was advised to go to France and train at La Maternité in Paris, but had to continue her training as a student midwife, not a physician. Her training there was cut short when in November 1849 she contracted a serious infection in her right eye, purulent ophthalmia, from a baby she was treating. She had to have her right eye removed and replaced with a glass eye. This loss brought to an end her hopes to become a surgeon.

In 1857, Blackwell, along with her sister Emily and Dr. Marie Zakrzewska, founded their own infirmary, the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, in a single-room dispensary near Tompkins Square in Manhattan. During the American Civil War, Blackwell trained many women to be nurses and sent them to the Union Army. Many women were interested and received training at this time. After the war, Blackwell had time, in 1868, to establish a Women's Medical College at the infirmary to train women physicians and doctors.


In 1853, Blackwell returned to England, where she attended Bedford College for Women in London for one year. In 1858, under a clause in the Medical Act 1858 that recognized doctors with foreign degrees practising in Britain before 1858, she was able to become the first woman to have her name entered on the General Medical Council's medical register (1 January 1859).

When Elizabeth Blackwell returned to the United States in 1859, she resumed work with the Infirmary. During the Civil War, the Blackwell sisters helped to organize the Women's Central Association of Relief, selecting and training nurses for service in the war. This venture helped to inspire the creation of the United States Sanitary Commission, and the Blackwells worked with this organization as well.

In 1869, she left her sister Emily in charge of the college and returned to England. There, with Florence Nightingale, she opened the Women's Medical College. Blackwell taught at London School of Medicine for Women, which she had co-founded, and accepted a chair in gynecology. She retired a year later.

During her retirement, Blackwell maintained her interest in the women's rights movement, writing lectures on the importance of education. She is credited with opening the first training school for nurses in the United States in 1873. She also published books about diseases and proper hygiene.

She was an early outspoken opponent of circumcision, and in 1894 said, "Parents, should be warned that this ugly mutilation of their children involves serious danger, both to their physical and moral health." She was a proponent of women's rights and opposed to abortion. Her female education guide was published in Spain, as was her autobiography.

In 1856, she adopted Katherine "Kitty" Barry, an orphan of Irish origin, who was her companion for the rest of her life. In 1907, Blackwell was injured in a fall down stairs, from which she never fully recovered. She died on 31 May 1910 at her home in Hastings in East Sussex after a stroke. She was buried in June 1910 in Saint Mun's churchyard at Kilmun on Holy Loch in the west of Scotland.


The Causes and Treatment of Typhus, or Shipfever (thesis)
The Laws of Life with Special Reference to the Physical Education of Girls (brochure, compilation of lecture series) pub. by George Putnam
The Religion of Health (compilation of lecture series)
Counsel for Parents (republished as Moral Education for the Young)
Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women. London: Longman, 1895; reprinted New York: Schocken Books, 1977. (autobiography)


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Elizabeth Blackwell's Timeline

February 3, 1821
Bristol, City of Bristol, England, United Kingdom
Age 88
England, United Kingdom