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Book and Media Reviews |

Three 19th-Century Women Doctors: Elizabeth Blackwell, Mary Walker, and Sarah Loguen Fraser

Dorothy Porter, PhD, Reviewer
JAMA. 2008;300(18):2182-2183. doi:10.1001/jama.2008.590.
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The pioneering struggles of the first women to become qualified physicians are stirring narratives of talent, courage, and conviction. The synoptic accounts provided in 3 essays by Mary LeClair, Justin White, and Susan Keeter of the battles fought by Elizabeth Blackwell, Mary Walker, and Sarah Loguen Fraser communicate the thrills and heartache of the fight with evocative clarity.

The story of Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) is told by LeClair, of Hobart and William Smith College in upstate New York, where Blackwell graduated as the first woman physician in the United States in 1849 (Figure 1), when it was Geneva Medical College. LeClair portrays Blackwell's resilient reformist spirit as dedicated to antislavery activity and female emancipation, which enabled her to survive overwhelming prejudice and condemnation while striving to become a qualified physician. Blackwell's career as the celebrated “American Doctress” had a profound impact both within and beyond the United States. Born in Bristol, Blackwell became the first woman physician on the British Medical Register created in 1858 and collaborated in opening up the British medical profession to women. With her sister Emily, who qualified as an MD at Cleveland Medical College in 1854, Blackwell created the Dispensary for Poor Women and Children and the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children in the 1850s and a medical college for women by 1868. Blackwell blazed the trail that individuals, institutions, and nation-states have followed in facilitating women's entrance to the medical profession.

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Figure 1. Left, Portrait of Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910), the first woman physician in the United States. Digital reproduction courtesy of the Hobart and William Smith Colleges Archives, Geneva, New York. Right, Photograph of Mary Edwards Walker (1832-1919) taken during the Civil War. The military uniform was created by a seamstress, and the pin at the collar signified the rank of an assistant surgeon. Dr Walker became the first woman ever awarded the nation's Congressional Medal of Honor. Photograph courtesy of the Oswego County Historical Society Collections.

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Figure 2. Class of 1876, Syracuse University College of Medicine (now SUNY Upstate Medical University College of Medicine). Sarah Loguen, center front, was born in 1850, the year the Fugitive Slave Act was enacted. She was the daughter of the Rev Jermain Wesley Loguen, a leading abolitionist in Syracuse, New York. Dr Loguen Fraser became one of the nation's first African American women physicians. Photograph courtesy of Goins Papers, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, Washington, DC.

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