In hard times, studying the lives of historic women steadies me, no matter the challenges I am facing. I’ve found that digging through stories for wisdom can inspire courage. Recently, the life and writings of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor in the United States, have helped me cultivate clarity and insight.
Blackwell was born in a family of Quakers who immigrated from England to the United States in the 1830s and settled in Cincinnati. The Blackwell family was avid abolitionists and supporters of women’s suffrage. It was a dying friend who inspired Blackwell to pursue a career in medicine. Near the end of her life, she confided in Blackwell that she believed her care would have been better if her doctor had been a woman.
Though the world looks different in many ways than it did in the 19th century, learning about the obstacles Blackwell faced and the ways in which she gathered strength to overcome them can help us embody meaning in our own lives through three important principles—perseverance, compassion and community.
Blackwell faced discrimination and obstacles throughout her life, but she persevered, demonstrating unflinching courage. At the time Blackwell chose to pursue a career in medicine, a negligible number of medical schools would consider admitting a woman. In fact, she was only accepted to one school, Geneva Medical College. The admissions committee drafted her acceptance letter as a joke, but she matriculated anyway.
In medical school, Blackwell was routinely excluded from participating in labs and was asked to sit separately from the male students in lectures. Holding aspirations outside of the social script for her gender, Blackwell was also ridiculed by her community for being a poor example to other women. Despite her detractors, she was ranked at the top of her class and became the first woman to graduate from medical school.
Holding aspirations outside of the social script for her gender, Blackwell was ridiculed.
Later on, an eye infection caused Blackwell to lose sight in one of her eyes, which eclipsed her dream of becoming a surgeon. Nevertheless, she persisted in the medical field as a physician and teacher.
Blackwell held progressive values, which her Quaker roots likely inspired. She was highly attuned to human suffering and social injustice. Blackwell set up a private practice and an office in lower income neighborhoods. An abolitionist, Blackwell organized a women’s medical relief initiative in the Civil War to train nurses for war response.
More broadly, however, Blackwell advocated for more empathy in the treatment of patients. Although this was dismissed as frivolous by male practitioners, she was committed to making the medical field more compassionate and humane—the foundation of her life’s work.
She was committed to making the medical field more compassionate and humane.
Blackwell advocated for the education of women throughout her life and, eventually, founded the Women’s Medical College. Following her return to England, Blackwell became a professor of gynecology and women’s health at the London School of Medicine for Women. In addition to practicing and teaching, Blackwell wrote about education, gender, medicine and her story of being a pioneer for women in the medical field.
Blackwell proved the importance of using one’s gifts, education, resources and platform to inspire and lift up the next generation of women. Throughout her life and career, she faced challenges with resolve. Looking through her story reminded me how we can draw upon our unique inner resources to shape the world and find inner strength to carry on amidst adversity of any kind.