The pioneering clinic of NYC’s first ‘lady doctor’

Elizabeth Blackwell wasn’t just New York City’s first female medical doctor—she was the first woman to practice medicine in the entire country.

But mid-19th century Gotham is where she decided to open a pioneering dispensary and then an infirmary, and the growing city benefited enormously.

Born in England in 1821 and raised in Cincinnati, Blackwell first became a teacher. She felt a strong calling toward medicine, however, especially after she watched a female friend die of a cancer of the reproductive organs.

“If I could have been treated by a lady doctor, my worst sufferings would have been spared me,” the friend told her, an anecdote Blackwell included in her 1895 autobiography.

In 1847, she applied to 20 medical colleges, all of which denied her admission.

Of course, the idea of a “lady doctor” was ridiculous at the time. A woman couldn’t be a doctor because studying anatomy—specifically of the reproductive system—could upset her morals, wrote Leo Trachtenburg in an article about Blackwell in City Journal in 2000.

Finally, one school did agree to take her: Geneva Medical College in upstate New York. (At left, an illustration of Blackwell in anatomy class.)

After postgraduate studies in Paris, she settled in New York City—which was then a city of elites, a merchant class, and an ever-growing population of poor people, including many who came to the city during the first wave of Irish and German immigration.

Blackwell opened an office at 44 University Place and put an ad in the New-York Tribune (above), but she had few patients, as people were not interested in receiving medical care from a woman, with some being hostile. “My pecuniary situation was a constant source of anxiety,” she recalled in her autobiography. She also admitted to being deeply lonely.

The 1850s proved to be a turning point for Blackwell.

“Her career instead took the direction it was to have for the rest of her life: the promotion of hygiene and preventive medicine among both lay persons and professionals and the promotion of medical education and opportunities for women physicians,” states a National Institutes of Medicine page.

Reaching out to wealthy and notable New Yorkers for financial backing, she opened a dispensary on East Seventh Street near Tompkins Square Park in 1853.

Unlike other dispensaries in the city that served all poor residents in a given ward, this one exclusively treated the women and children of the 11th Ward.

Back then, the ward was populated by German immigrants, many hungry and desperately ill. “The design of this institution is to give to poor women an opportunity of consulting physicians of their own sex,” she wrote.

In 1856, Blackwell—along with her newly minted physician sister, Emily Blackwell, and another female doctor opened The New York Infirmary for Women and Children at 64 Bleecker Street. (A plaque, below left, marks the site today.)

It would be the first female-run hospital in the city. A house once occupied by members of the Roosevelt family was renovated and outfitted with a maternity center and surgical ward.

“In addition to the usual departments of hospital and dispensary practice, which included the visiting of poor patients at their own homes, we established a sanitary visitor,” wrote Blackwell. This would be “one of our assistant physicians, whose special duty it was to give simple, practical instruction to poor mothers on the management of infants and the preservation of the health of their families.”

Considering the conditions many families lived in—shut off in dark, unventilated tenements where disease easily spread and infants didn’t often make it to their first birthday—this information was vital.

“Blackwell aimed to use the Infirmary not only to treat needy patients but also to train women doctors and nurses, so that other women could follow in her path more easily,” wrote Trachtenberg. “The Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary officially opened at 126 Second Avenue in November 1868.”

While Blackwell’s infirmary continued to operate and fulfill its mission of treating women and children and training women for medical professions, Blackwell herself left New York in the 1860s. She spent the rest of her life in England, famous for her medical lectures and books.

She died in 1910. The infirmary she launched before the Civil War moved to Stuyvesant Square (above right), where it remained for 90 years, according to Town & Village, before moving into a new building in the 1950s. After a series of mergers it became part of today’s New York Presbyterian Lower Manhattan Hospital.

[First image: Biography.com; second image: New-York Presbyterian; third image: New-York Tribune; fourth image: NYPL digital collection; fifth image: New-York Presbyterian; sixth image: King’s Handbook of New York City 1892 via Wikipedia; seventh image: readtheplaque.com; eighth image, Wikipedia]

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10 Responses to “The pioneering clinic of NYC’s first ‘lady doctor’”

  1. Nancy Anderson Says:

    What an extraordinary woman! I had heard of Dr Blackwell, but knew very little. During our 21 Century Plague, with its devastation, heroism & more of local medical workers in the face of so much federal political negligence, Dr Blackwell is a forceful reminder that brave & persistent action in the face of fearful odds matters. Thank you for publishing this NON Ephemeral NY!

    One question, why did Dr Blackwell move to England, never returning to the US?

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thank you! You know, I’m not sure why she left, or if she went there expecting to be away for a short time and ended up staying. Perhaps she felt her work in NYC was done, and in England she could lecture and write and be a more effective force for opening up medicine to women.

  2. Shayne Davidson Says:

    Great post! I am wondering if Dr. Blackwell had a financial sponsor for her work in NYC.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Yes, many. She has been described as demure, but she reached out to the city’s elite and secured financial backing and public support from a variety of well-known New Yorkers, including Henry Ward Beecher.

  3. Steve T Says:

    I am proud to say that I am a graduate of SUNY Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse – initially known as the Geneva Medical College. Acknowledging their most well known alum, the school, is located on Elizabeth Blackwell Street. Throughout the years, it has championed the role of women in medicine.

  4. Francine P.H. Says:

    Posted it to my facebook page Quotes by Women. Thanks! Always love to read about strong women…

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      She certainly was a “strong-minded woman,” the 19th century term for an educated woman who had her own ideas and ambitions.

  5. bo Says:

    Elizabeth Blackwell describes why she returned to England:

    “The first seven years of New York life were years of very difficult though steady, uphill work. It was carried on without cessation and without change from town, either summer or winter. Patients came very slowly to consult me. I had no medical companionship, the profession stood aloof, and society was distrustful of the innovation. Insolent letters occasionally came by post, and my pecuniary position was a source of constant anxiety. My keenest pleasure in those early days came from the encouraging letters received from the many valued English friends who extended across the ocean the warm sympathy they had shown in London. They strengthened that feeling of kinship to my native land which finally drew me back to it.”

    “In 1869, the early pioneer work in America was ended. Our New York centre was well organised under able guidance, and I determined to return to England for a temporary though prolonged residence, both to renew physical strength, which had been severely tried, and to enlarge my experience of life, as well as to assist in the pioneer work so bravely commencing in London, and which extended later to Edinburgh.”

    http://amazingwomeninhistory.com/elizabeth-blackwell-first-female-doctor/

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