By Russell Roberts.
Women occupy such an important role today in the professional business world it’s hard to believe that, not all that long ago, women were barred from most professions simply because of sexual prejudice. They had to endure a long, lonely battle to be considered equal to men merely so they could take their rightful place in the workforce.
Such was the case for Elizabeth Blackwell, the first modern woman to become a doctor.
Blackwell was born in England in 1821. In 1832, the Blackwell family moved to America. After the death of her financial bread-winner father, the once-prosperous Blackwell family found itself so pressed for cash that they had to jump up and down to keep warm in cold weather rather than buying coal for fuel.
Blackwell became a schoolteacher – one of the few professions open to women at this time – but teaching young girls who only cared about finding a husband left her empty inside.
In 1845, Blackwell visited a female friend dying of cancer, who suggested she become a doctor and noted that a female doctor would have helped her far more than the male ones did. The idea was preposterous, yet Blackwell decided to do it. “It can’t be done” her friend, writer Harriet Beecher Stowe, told her.
After several rejections from numerous medical schools, Blackwell accepted a spot at Geneva College in New York. Townspeople avoided her because they thought she was immoral, insane, or both, and some professors asked her to avoid their lectures, yet Blackwell stuck it out.
Even after graduating in 1849, no hospital in the U.S. or England would let her practice. In desperation, she went to a Paris hospital, where an accident cost her the loss of sight in her left eye.
No longer able to become a surgeon, as she had wanted, Blackwell returned to the America and opened her own practice. Slowly she began acquiring patients. Yet she remained an outsider, shunned by members of her own profession and romantically ignored by men. Lonely and realizing that marriage was a futile dream, she adopted a 7-year old girl.
But Blackwell had kicked open a door that would not close again. Inspired by her courageous example, other women began entering the medical field. When Blackwell died in 1910, there were over 7,000 licensed female doctors in the United States.
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