Originally published by Hobart and William Smith Colleges, December 17, 2020
Hobart and William Smith Colleges (HWS) will commemorate the first woman to receive her degree as a Doctor of Medicine – Elizabeth Blackwell – during the week of her 200th birthday in February 2021.
Blackwell’s alma mater, Geneva Medical College was a department of Geneva College, which was later renamed Hobart College and is now Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Dr. Blackwell is renowned worldwide for her achievement as the first woman doctor and for the precedent she set, both in modern medicine and opening the field of medicine to women.
On her birthday, Wednesday, Feb. 3, HWS will host a virtual conversation with the author of a new dual biography of Dr. Blackwell and her sister, Emily, who earned her medical degree shortly after Elizabeth. Beginning at noon via Zoom, historian and author Janice P. Nimura will join the HWS community to discuss her book, The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women and Women to Medicine, which will be published by W.W. Norton in January. The discussion will be facilitated by Professor of Women’s Studies Betty Bayer.
In the book, which has earned starred pre-publication reviews, Nimura follows the journey of the two sisters, “English immigrants who, in quick succession, became the first and third women, respectively, in the U.S. to earn medical degrees — and who, in 1857, founded the very first hospital staffed by women, the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children,” as the publisher notes.
Nimura — an independent historian whose last book, Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back, was a New York Times Notable book of 2015 — is the winner of a 2017 National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar award. She lives in New York City.
Throughout Dr. Blackwell’s birthday, HWS will celebrate the legacy of its legendary alumna with engaging programming, including a walking tour of her commute to campus from her apartment on South Main Street and a talk by Professor of Art and Architecture A.E. Ted Aub, who crafted the bronze statue of Dr. Blackwell that sits on the southwest corner of the Hobart Quad.
About Elizabeth Blackwell
In the Victoria Age, middle-class women did not receive formal educations; they could not own property or vote. Despite these obstacles, the aspiring doctor studied privately with independent physicians, an education which culminated when she graduated from Geneva Medical College on Jan. 23, 1849, at the head of her class. A contemporaneous letter, describing the exercises, says that Blackwell received her diploma from the hands of President Benjamin Hale and said, “Sir, by the help of the Most High, it shall be the effort of my life to shed honor on this diploma.”
Dr. Blackwell’s career in medicine was difficult as she fought to find employment in the male-dominated profession of medicine. Hospitals extended no opportunities for Blackwell to set up practice. At the time, it was not customary for professionals to discuss subjects pertaining to the body, illness or diseases in the company of women. Unrestrained by these obstacles, Dr. Blackwell founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children and aided in the creation of its medical college. Upon her return to her homeland England, she helped found the National Health Society, was the first woman to be placed on the British Medical Register, and taught at England’s first college of medicine for women. She pioneered in preventive medicine and in the promotion of antisepsis and hygiene and was responsible for the first chair of hygiene in any medical college.