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First US woman doctor registered with GMC

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Monday 31 May 2010 is the centenary of the death of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to be awarded a degree in medicine in the US. She graduated top of her class from Geneva College, New York on 23 April 1849, but faced many challenges on her path to a medical career.

The third of nine children, Elizabeth  Blackwell was born in the UK, in Bristol, where her father was a sugar refiner. Following the destruction by fire of his business, the family emigrated to America to set up a new refinery in New York.

After her father’s death, Elizabeth went into teaching. She disliked the job, but needed it to earn the money to pay to go to medical school.

When she applied to medical school the faculty decided not to admit her without the approval of a student vote. Anecdotally, she was accepted only because the students thought the application was a hoax. She braved prejudice from students and professors alike and is reported to have said that if they did not like the fact that she wore a bonnet, she would happily remove it and sit in the back row, but she would not miss any lectures.

Having graduated, she was banned from practice in most US hospitals, and so she went to Paris, where she trained further in a maternity hospital. While there, she caught purulent ophthalmia from a baby she was treating and had to have the infected eye replaced by a glass one.

In 1857, Elizabeth founded an infirmary for women and children in New York before returning to England, where she attended Bedford College for Women for one year. Under a clause in the then Medical Act, which recognised the degrees of foreigners practising in Britain before 1858, she was able to become the first woman registered with the General Medical Council.

After a further 10 years in America she left the New York infirmary in the hands of her sister to return to England, where with Florence Nightingale she opened the Women’s Medical College.

Throughout her adult life Elizabeth Blackwell supported women’s rights and was a pioneer in medical education for women. She developed these concerns partly because of her Quaker background and her father’s belief that his daughters should receive the same education as his sons.

She helped many women in their careers. For example, in her New York infirmary she offered a practical solution to one of the problems facing women who were rejected from internships elsewhere but were determined to expand their skills as physicians.

She also published several important books on the issue of women in medicine, including ‘Medicine as a profession for women’ in 1860 and ‘Address on the medical education of women’ in 1864.

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