Posts Tagged ‘Emily Blackwell’

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

April 6, 2020

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]