It Happened Here: Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell

How the nation's first female doctor changed the face of medical care.

hen Elizabeth Blackwell was a 24-year-old teacher, she visited a close family friend dying of uterine cancer who spoke of how she had suffered at the hands of male doctors during her medical treatment.

“Why not study medicine?” the friend asked. “If I could have been treated by a lady doctor, my worst sufferings would have been spared me.”

Elizabeth immediately rejected the idea. “I hated everything connected with the body and could not bear the sight of a medical book,” she wrote in her autobiography, Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women.

But the spark was lit. In 1849, she become the nation’s first female doctor. Eight years later, she founded the first U.S. hospital staffed entirely by women, which eventually evolved into today’s NewYork-Presbyterian Lower Manhattan Hospital. And in 1868, she launched a medical college devoted entirely to the medical education of women, which was absorbed by what is today Weill Cornell Medicine.

“Dr. Blackwell is an inspiration to all women physicians,” says Judy Tung, M.D., chair of the department of medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian Lower Manhattan Hospital and associate professor of clinical medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. “She has reminded us never to forget the roots of why we came into medicine: to serve the people.”

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