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.