labor and methods to achieve equal rights
for all people.
Her father gave his five daughters the
same education in languages, history, and
mathematics that he gave his four sons.
“Sheer nonsense,” said Elizabeth’s unmarried
aunt Barbara, who lived with them. Aunt
Barbara saw no reason to educate young
ladies. But Elizabeth spent her pocket money
on books and found “the present of a new
book the greatest delight.”
When her father died, seventeen-year-
old Elizabeth and two older sisters opened a
school in their home. Their teaching helped
support the family, but Elizabeth was not
content. She wanted to do something more
challenging, something that would stretch
her mind and use up some of her restless
She ruled out marriage—she would never
find a man who would give her as much
freedom as her father had. Yet she did not
want to end up like Aunt Barbara, forced to
depend on a brother for support. She racked
her brains to think of something that an
independent, educated woman could do.
One day when she was visiting a dying
friend, the woman said to her, “Why don’t
you study medicine? My illness would have
caused me much less pain and embarrassment
if I had been treated by a lady doctor.”
Elizabeth balked at the idea. “I hated
everything connected with the body,” she
wrote later. “I could not bear the sight of a
medical book.” Yet she found herself lying
awake at night thinking about it. Becoming
a doctor would give her the challenge she
needed so badly. It would, she wrote, “fill my
emptiness and prevent this sad wearing away
of my heart.”
So she decided to become a doctor. She
took teaching jobs to earn money. She stud-
ied medical books and lost her fear of them.
Finally, she went to Philadelphia, the home
of the best medical schools in the country.
The doctors Elizabeth visited in
Philadelphia all told her that she could not be
a doctor. Dr. Joseph Warrington urged her to
become a nurse. Or, he said, she could go to
Paris, dress as a man, and try to get into one
of the medical schools there.
Such outlandish advice only made
Elizabeth more determined. “The idea has
taken deep root in my soul, and I cannot lay
it aside,” she wrote to a friend.
She applied to smaller schools. One appli-
cation went to Geneva Medical College, along
with the letter from Dr. Warrington that led
to her acceptance.
Elizabeth’s first days at Geneva were diffi-
cult. Townspeople stared at her, rooming houses
turned her away, and other students ignored
her. But she was determined and finally sensed
that her classmates were warming up to her
when they began calling her “Blackwell.”
During the summer between her two years
at Geneva, Elizabeth returned to Philadelphia
to work in the Blockley Almshouse, a hospital
for the poor. The food there was bad, and the
nurses, undereducated and underpaid, seemed
uncaring. Odors hung in the air, but the win-
dows were kept closed.