Manuscript/Mixed Material Letter, Elizabeth Blackwell to Baroness Anne Isabella Milbanke Byron concerning women's rights and the education of women physicians, 4 March 1851.
About this Item
- Letter, Elizabeth Blackwell to Baroness Anne Isabella Milbanke Byron concerning women's rights and the education of women physicians, 4 March 1851.
- Created / Published
- 4 March 1851
- Subject Headings
- - Physicians
- - Education
- - Women
- - Medicine
- - Anderson, Elizabeth Garrett (1836-1917)
- - Blackwell, Elizabeth (1821-1910)
- - Blackwell, Emily (1826-1910)
- - Byron, Anne Isabella Milbanke Byron, Baroness (1792-1860)
- - Byron, George Gordon Byron, Baron (1788-1824)
- - Jameson, Anna Brownell Murphy (1794-1860)
- - Kemble, Fanny (1809-1893)
- - Nightingale, Florence (1820-1910)
- - Manuscripts
- - Reproduction number: A11 (color slide; pages 1 and 4); A12 (color slide; pages 2 and 3)
- - I do not wish to give [women] a first place, still less a second one--but the most complete freedom, to take their true place whatever it may be," asserted pioneer physician Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) in this spirited response to a suggestion by Lady Noel Byron (1792-1860) that women doctors should assume a secondary position in the medical profession. Blackwell, who against great odds became the first woman in the United States to obtain a medical degree, took umbrage at Byron's "fatal error" of ranking human beings according to sex instead of character."
- - Only two years earlier, in January 1849, Blackwell had completed a rigorous medical education at Geneva College in west central New York, the only school to have accepted her application, despite the fact that she had studied medicine privately for four years. Blackwell later learned that the Geneva medical students, who had been given the final say on her admission, had voted to accept her because they believed her application was a joke perpetrated by a rival school. When Blackwell arrived for classes in November 1847, however, she earned her fellow students' respect and acceptance. She later wrote in her autobiography that the medical students' behavior was "admirable" and "that of true gentlemen," but she noted that other students and the townspeople were less accepting and had determined that she was either "a bad woman whose designs would gradually become evident, or that, being insane, an outbreak of insanity would soon be apparent." (Elizabeth Blackwell, Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women: Autobiographical Sketches by Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1895), 70-73.) In applying to Geneva College, Blackwell had resisted advice to study abroad or to disguise herself as a man to attend an American school. She felt strongly that challenging the educational barriers faced by prospective women doctors was a "moral crusade . . . a course of justice and common sense," (Ibid., 62.) a belief apparent in her letter to Lady Byron when discussing the obstacles she faced.
- - After graduating from Geneva College, Blackwell studied briefly in Paris and then in London, where she became acquainted with that country's leading literary and scientific figures. She also began lifelong friendships with Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), a self-taught expert in nursing who had not yet achieved fame for her work during the Crimean War, and Anne Isabella Milbanke, the mathematician and heiress known as Lady Byron since her short and unsuccessful marriage to romantic poet Lord George Gordon Byron (1788-1824), who in happier times had affectionately dubbed his wife the "princess of Parallelograms." (Joan Baum, The Calculating Passion of Ada Byron (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1996), 14.)
- - Lady Byron learned of Blackwell through mutual friends and the two initiated a correspondence when the young doctor interned at a London hospital. Blackwell wrote to her sister that she had never met a woman with greater scientific interests and knowledge. She greatly admired the older women's "rare intelligence" and "long experience" and described for her sister an invigorating three-day visit to Byron's fashionable home in Brighton. There Blackwell met noted Irish author Mrs. Anna Jameson (1794-1860) and flamboyant Shakespearean actress Fanny Kemble (1809-1893). She also conversed with Byron on a variety of topics in a lively manner characteristic of their subsequent correspondence. (Blackwell, Pioneer Work, 181-183.)
- - Byron and other supporters wanted Blackwell to establish a practice in England based on her interests in preventive medicine, sanitation and moral reform, personal hygiene, and natural remedies like hydrotherapy and fresh-air treatments. Blackwell, however, believed that she would meet with less resistance in America, where medical schools had begun admitting more women. Unfortunately she miscalculated the difficulty of her endeavor. Arriving in New York in August 1851, Blackwell found herself barred from practice in city hospitals and considered comparable to a notorious abortionist, who also identified herself as a "female physician." In 1853 Blackwell opened a small dispensary in one of the city's tenement districts, where she was later joined, first by her sister, Dr. Emily Blackwell (1826-1910), and then by Dr. Marie Zakrzewska (1829-1902), both recent medical school graduates. The following year, the three women opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children.
- - Throughout this difficult time in her life, Blackwell kept in touch with Byron and other British friends, some of whom contributed financially to the hospital. In 1858 she returned to England to help advance women's medical training there and supposedly delivered a lecture that prompted British medical pioneer Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917) to become a doctor. In 1869, having achieved her goal of establishing a medical college for women in the United States, Blackwell entrusted the hospital and college to her sister and "retired" to England, where she later died in 1910.
- Source Collection
- Blackwell Family Papers
- Manuscript Division
- Online Format
- IIIF Presentation Manifest
- Manifest (JSON/LD)
Rights & Access
The Library of Congress believes that most of the papers in this collection are in the public domain or have no known copyright restrictions. Copyright in the unpublished writings of members of the Blackwell family has been dedicated to the public. Researchers should watch for modern documents (for example, published in the United States less than 95 years ago, or unpublished and the author died less than 70 years ago) that may be copyrighted.
Credit Line: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Blackwell Family Papers.
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Chicago citation style:
Letter, Elizabeth Blackwell to Baroness Anne Isabella Milbanke Byron concerning women's rights and the education of women physicians, 4 March. 4 March, 1851. Manuscript/Mixed Material. https://www.loc.gov/item/mcc.065/.
APA citation style:
(1851) Letter, Elizabeth Blackwell to Baroness Anne Isabella Milbanke Byron concerning women's rights and the education of women physicians, 4 March. 4 March. [Manuscript/Mixed Material] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/mcc.065/.
MLA citation style:
Letter, Elizabeth Blackwell to Baroness Anne Isabella Milbanke Byron concerning women's rights and the education of women physicians, 4 March. 4 March, 1851. Manuscript/Mixed Material. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/mcc.065/>.
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