picture of Elizabeth Blackwell, circa 1855

(WOMENSENEWS)–A mid-19th century white American woman was generally quite ignorant about the physical side of life. From childbirth to diseases to athletics, real knowledge of human bodies was taboo.

But the family of British-born Elizabeth Blackwell had pretty much devoted itself to breaking taboos. Immigrating to the United States in 1832, the anti-slavery Blackwells surrounded themselves with Quakers, abolitionists and other radical thinkers, including women’s rights activists, two of whom, Lucy Stone and Antoinette Blackwell, would marry into the family.

Young Elizabeth developed the idea of acquiring forbidden knowledge: She wanted to become a doctor and treat female patients. By the 1850s, Blackwell had audaciously fought her way to become the first woman to graduate from medical school, in Geneva, N.Y., in 1849. Thwarted in every attempt to set up a practice, she was buttressed by the support of England’s pioneering nurse Florence Nightingale and by her own sister Emily, who also had gotten a medical education. She welcomed to her “team” a German immigrant and expert midwife named Marie Zakzewska.

Raising funds from progressive people around the world, but especially from those Quakers, abolitionists and women’s rights advocates who formed her social network, Blackwell managed to buy an old house in a Manhattan slum. On May 12, 1857–a date chosen to honor Florence Nightingale’s 37th birthday–the Blackwell sisters and Zakzewska threw open the doors of the first hospital staffed by women, serving women. The New York Infirmary for Women and Children consisted of two sitting rooms on the first floor converted into six-bed wards, an operating room that had once been the upstairs bedroom and, for living quarters, the attic.

Most of the immigrant German and Italian patients could not pay for care. In the precarious first year, a woman died of childbed fever and in the second year, one died of a ruptured appendix. With each death, angry neighborhood mobs converged with sticks, stones, garbage and shouts of “murderer.”

The hospital survived. Less than a decade later, a Women’s Medical College was added. It was only in the 1960s, having been incorporated into Beth Israel Medical Center, that male physicians were allowed on the hospital’s attending staff. Every modern woman who finds a female doctor to confide in, who understands her own physiology and links women’s health to women’s freedom owes a tip of the hat to Elizabeth Blackwell, whose friends called her “a guiding star to rebellious women everywhere.”

Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.” She can be reached at [email protected].

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