Heroes of Learning: Elizabeth Blackwell

Imagine if we had no female Doctors. Do you think we might be in a bad way? Well, the fact we have any at all is partly due to Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) who was showing the boys that the Sisters could do it at a time when female suffrage was regarded as a quaint joke, and slavery was still widely practiced in the United States.

What’s remarkable about Elizabeth was her all-consuming energy. In the course of a long life her ferocious will was applied to most of the progressive Reform and Progressive causes of her day. Like Garrison, Stowe and many others, she was a product of that remarkable culture of Protestant Christianity that rooted in New England in the seventeenth century. It generated many offshoots and heterodox subsets-Blackwell was a doyenne of both Congregationalists and Unitarians at different times-but all were united in their aspiring, hopeful lives, which prized Duty way above individual greed.

The roll call of her achievements is too long for this tiny blog. First female medical graduate 1847 (hats off to Geneva College, NY for this one!) Founded New York Infirmary for women 1857. Deeply involved in medical work in Civil War 1961-1865 (she hated slavery) Flits across the pond to Britain where she founded the National Health Society in 1871. A prescient title indeed. Then came retirement, when most of might choose to spend our days in beer and skittles. But:

Her greatest period of reform activity was after her retirement from the medical profession, from 1880 to 1895. Blackwell was interested in a great number of reform movements – mainly moral reform, sexual purity, hygiene and medical education, but also preventive medicine, sanitation, eugenics, family planning, women’s rights, associationismChristian socialism, medical ethics and antivivisection – none of which ever came to real fruition.[6] She switched back and forth between many different reform organisations, trying to maintain a position of power in each. Blackwell had a lofty, elusive and ultimately unattainable goal: evangelical moral perfection. All of her reform work was along this thread. She even contributed heavily to the founding of two utopian communities: Starnthwaite and Hadleigh in the 1880s.[6] [1]

She wasn’t right on everything (nor were Darwin and Einstein) and she quarrelled with some equally remarkable people including Florence Nightingale. Such are the occupational hazards of a life lived at the cutting edge. But, man or woman, before you sink into apathy and self satisfaction with your accomplishments, ask yourself: have I lived my lfe as well as this?

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Blackwell

#women #feminism #medicine #protestant #new england #reform #progressive

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s