The first woman doctor, U.S. division

As the first woman doctor in the United States, Elizabeth Blackwell had the dubious honor of showing the way for women to qualify for and enter a profession in which, at the time, they were pointedly unwelcome.

Blackwell endured repeated rejections on her way into medical school, where she was shunned by the male students and shut out of clinical opportunities by the teachers. After she finished medical school, when no one would hire her, she founded her own hospital and made her own opportunities.

Elizabeth Blackwell

Elizabeth Blackwell

Blackwell was born in England; her father was a wealthy Quaker and sugar refiner whose business eventually fell on hard times. The large family moved to the United States when Elizabeth was 11 and settled in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Blackwell''s father died when she was a teenager and the family opened a small private school, where Elizabeth began teaching.

When she decided she wanted to be a doctor, she was turned away from 29 medical schools before being accepted by the Geneva Medical School in Geneva, N.Y. In spite of the hostility she encountered there, she graduated at the top of her class in 1849, with plans to become a surgeon.

Blackwell traveled to Paris to take a course in midwifery, where she contracted an infection that cost her the sight in one eye. That put an end to her hopes of becoming a surgeon. Back in the United States, Blackwell found she couldn't get work in a hospital, so she went into private practice.

In 1853, along with her sister Emily, and Marie Zakrzewska, two other early female doctors, Blackwell founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, now New York Downtown Hospital. During the Civil War, Blackwell trained nurses to treat soldiers injured on the battlefield.

The Blackwell sisters also founded the Women's Medical College of New York in 1869, but within a few years, Elizabeth went back to England. She was a professor of gynecology at the London School of Medicine for Women for the rest of her working life. Blackwell died at the age of 89, in 1910.

The medium was the message

Elizabeth Blackwell was the first female doctor in the United States, but it’s her sister, Anna, I would like to consider today. Anna Blackwell was a Spiritualist; that is, she believed it was possible to communicate with the dead.

She wasn’t alone. Many prominent families, especially in the Northeast, contributed passionate believers to this native American religion. Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, had two siblings who were Spiritualists.

Today perhaps most people view Spiritualism as a hoax, but in the mid-19th century, when electricity was beginning to be harnessed and people realized there were things about their world they couldn’t see and didn’t understand, Spiritualism attracted a huge number of followers.

Spiritualism sprang to life in a small town near Rochester, N.Y., in 1848 after two sisters, Kate and Margaret Fox, 12 and 14 years old, claimed that the raps that only occurred in their presence were urgent messages from a dead man they said was buried in the basement of their house.

The Fox sisters

Margaret and Kate Fox with their sister Leah (left to right)

When the sisters moved into Rochester, they were taken up by an enthralled community of progressive people ready to move away from the grim outlook of traditional religions, and traumatized by the virtually universal untimely loss of children and other loved ones.

“The hunger for communion with the dead gave Spiritualism its content, transforming what may have been a teenage prank into a new religion,” writes Ann Braude, author of Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth Century America.

Many of these people discovered that they, too, could communicate with the dead. Virtually all these mediums were women, and even young girls. Spiritualism was not a particularly organized religion, but it did pick up a guiding philosophy from the Quakers, abolitionists and feminists who swelled its ranks.

One of the most important tenets of Spiritualism was gender equality. “Not all feminists were Spiritualists, but all Spiritualists advocated women’s rights,” Braude writes.

Documentation is scarce, but membership estimates range from a few hundred thousand to 11 million at a time when the United States population was 25 million, Braude reports.

What does Spiritualism have to do with the birth story? According to Braude’s book, this colorful native American religion played a major role in preparing women to occupy a role on the center stage of American life.

We’re going to explore that connection this week.