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Elizabeth Blackwell

American Physician

1821-1910

A selection from
PIONEERING WORK IN OPENING THE MEDICAL PROFESSION TO WOMEN

Narrated by Maggi-Meg Reed

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In the summer of 1847, with my carefully hoarded earnings, I resolved to seek an entrance into a medical school. Philadelphia was then considered the chief seat of medical learning in America, so to Philadelphia I went; taking passage in a sailing vessel from Charleston for the sake of economy.

Applications were cautiously but persistently made to the four medical colleges of Philadelphia for admission as a regular student. The interviews with their various professors were by turns hopeful and disappointing. Whilst pursuing these inquiries I commenced my anatomical studies in the private school of Dr. Allen. This gentleman by his thoughtful arrangements enabled me to overcome the natural repulsion to these studies generally felt at the outset. With a tact and delicacy for which I have always felt grateful, he gave me as my first lesson in practical anatomy a demonstration of the human wrist. The beauty of the tendons and exquisite arrangements of this part of the body struck my artistic sense, and appealed to the sentiment of reverence with which this anatomical branch of study was ever afterwards invested in my mind.

During the following months, whilst making applications to the different medical colleges of Philadelphia for admission as a regular student, I enlisted the services of my friends in the search for an Alma Mater. The interviews with the various professors, though disappointing, were often amusing.

After a short, refreshing trip with my family to the seaside, the search was again renewed in Philadelphia. But applications made for admission to the medical schools both of Philadelphia and of New York were met with similarly unsuccessful results.

I therefore obtained a complete list of all the smaller schools of the Northern States, "country schools," as they were called. I examined their prospectuses, and quite at a venture sent in applications for admission to twelve of the most promising institutions, where full courses of instruction were given under able professors. The result was awaited with much anxiety, as the time for the commencement of the winter sessions was rapidly approaching. No answer came for some time. At last, to my immense relief (though not surprise, for failure never seemed possible), I received an acceptance letter from the medical department of a small university town in the western part of the State of New York:-

With an immense sigh of relief and aspiration of profound gratitude to Providence I instantly accepted the invitation, and prepared for the journey to Western New York State.

Leaving Philadelphia on November 4, I hastened through New York, travelled all night, and reached the little town of Geneva at 11 P.M. on November 6.

The next day, after a refreshing sleep, I sallied forth for an interview with the dean of the college, enjoying the view of the beautiful lake on which Geneva is situated, notwithstanding the cold, drizzling, windy day. After an interview with the authorities of the college I was duly inscribed on the list as student No. 130, in the medical department of the Geneva University.

I at once established myself in a comfortable boarding- house, in the same street as my college and three minutes' walk from it-a beautiful walk along the high bank overlooking the lake. I hung my room with dear mementoes of absent friends, and soon with hope and zeal and thankful feelings of rest I settled down to study.

I had not the slightest idea of the commotion created by my appearance as a medical student in the little town. Very slowly I perceived that a doctor's wife at the table avoided any communication with me, and that as I walked backwards and forwards to college the ladies stopped to stare at me, as at a curious animal. I afterwards found that I had so shocked Geneva propriety that the theory was fully established either that I was a bad woman, whose designs would gradually become evident, or that, being insane, an outbreak of insanity would soon be apparent. Feeling the unfriendliness of the people, though quite unaware of all this gossip, I never walked abroad, but hastening daily to my college as to a sure refuge, I knew when I shut the great doors behind me that I shut out all unkindly criticism, and I soon felt perfectly at home amongst my fellow-students.

The behaviour of the medical class during the two years that I was with them was admirable. It was that of true Christian gentlemen. I learned later that some of them had been inclined to think my application for admission a hoax, perpetrated at their expense by a rival college. But when the bona-fide student actually appeared they gave her a manly welcome, and fulfilled to the letter the promise contained in their invitation.

My place in the various lecture-rooms was always kept for me, and I was never in any way molested. Walking down the crowded amphitheatre after the class was seated, no notice was taken of me. Whilst the class waited in one of the large lecture- rooms for the Professor of Practice, groups of the wilder students gathered at the windows, which overlooked the grounds of a large normal school for young ladies. The pupils of this institution knew the hour of this lecture, and gathered at their windows for a little fun. Here, peeping from behind the blinds, they responded to the jests and hurrahs of the students. "See the one in pink!" "No, look at the one with a blue tie; she has a note" and — fun suddenly hushed by the entrance of the Professor. Meanwhile I had quietly looked over my notes in the seat always reserved for me, entirely undisturbed by the frolic going on at the windows.

My studies in anatomy were most thoughtfully arranged by Dr. Le Ford, who selected four of the steadier students to work with me in the private room of the surgical professor, adjoining the amphitheatre. There we worked evening after evening in the most friendly way, and I gained curious glimpses into the escapades of student life. Being several years older than my companions, they treated me like an elder sister, and talked freely together, feeling my friendly sympathy.

Under the intelligent instruction of the demonstrator anatomy became a most fascinating study. The wonderful arrangements of the human body excited an interest and admiration which simply obliterated the more superficial feelings of repugnance; and I passed hour after hour at night alone in the college, tracing out the ramification of parts, until, suddenly struck by the intense stillness around, I found that it was nearly midnight, and the rest of the little town asleep.

I was equally amazed and shocked some years later, after dining with Mr. Walsh, the American Consul in Paris, to learn that he had remarked that he could not look at my long slender fingers without thinking of the anatomical work in which they had been engaged.

As the term drew to its end there was regret at parting from friends I had made, and also anxiety from the uncertainties that still attended my future course.

More information about Elizabeth Blackwell from Wikipedia




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