Skip Navigation Bar
 
That Girl There Is Doctor Is Medicine. Elizabeth Blackwell, America's First Woman M.D. written in white lettering.

College Life

Geneva Medical College was one of the many small, short-lived medical schools that flourished in 19th-century America. Founded in 1835 in a small town at the foot of Seneca Lake in western New York State, by 1847 it had seven faculty members, a student body of about 150, and a new college building. To graduate, students took two 16-week courses of lectures, submitted a thesis, and took an oral exam. Nearly all the students came from the surrounding counties.

Exterior view of the front and left side of the Geneva Medical College; trees cover the ground in front of the building.

Geneva Medical College.
Geneva Historical Society

Colored map of the state of New York detailing the cities, towns and villages.

J. Calvin Smith
Map of the State of New York, 1848
Geography and Map Division. Library of Congress


Page 5 of Circular of the Medical Institution of Geneva College, detailing the faculty of the Medical Institution of Geneva College .

Geneva College.
Annual Circular of the Medical Institution,
of Geneva College. July, 1846
.
Rochester: Jerome & Brother, 1846.
National Library of Medicine

Elizabeth arrived in Geneva on November 6, 1847, several weeks after the term had begun. Though she described her reception as friendly, there was probably an undertone of surprise and consternation among students and faculty. A member of the class, writing years later, revealed that the faculty opposed her admission but felt unable to turn down an otherwise qualified woman candidate. They referred the decision to the students, who took the request as a joke, voted unanimously to admit her, drafted a declaration to that effect, and thought no more about it. A few weeks later the "lady student" appeared in the lecture room.

At first, Elizabeth experienced the bewilderment of any new student, but the novelty of her gender made her position more difficult. The townspeople avoided her, thinking her either mad or immoral. Curious strangers entered the lecture room to stare at her.


Cover of The Doctor and OD Quarterly featuring a full length right pose of Elizabeth Blackwell on the left front side holding a book in her right hand. Three women are in the upper right corner looking at Elizabeth Blackwell.

Doctor and OD,
vol. 49 (Oct. 1939)
Courtesy Library of Congress

"I had not the slightest idea of the commotion created by my appearance as a medical student in the little town. Very slowly I perceived that a doctor's wife at the table avoided any communication with me, and that as I walked backwards and forwards to college the ladies stopped to stare at me, as at a curious animal. I afterwards found that I had so shocked Geneva propriety that the theory was fully established either that I was a bad woman, whose designs would gradually become evident, or that, being insane, an outbreak of insanity would soon be apparent."


Her attendance at anatomy lectures produced embarrassment and the professor, Professor John Webster, her most enthusiastic supporter, suggested that she stay away on the days reproductive anatomy was demonstrated. She replied that she wished to be treated simply as another student, that she regarded the study of anatomy with profound reverence, and was certain that an experienced medical man could not feel embarrassment from her presence.

Handwritten page 7 of James Webster's syllabus notes about subject of dissection.

James Webster.
[Anatomy Syllabus, 1846-47]
National Library of Medicine

Dr. Webster's manuscript syllabus reveals the embarrassing subject of dissection.
"November 22.--A trying day, and I feel almost worn out, though it was encouraging too, and in some measure a triumph; but 'tis a terrible ordeal! That dissection was just as much as I could bear. Some of the students blushed, some were hysterical, not one could keep in a smile ... My delicacy was certainly shocked, and yet the exhibition was in some sense ludicrous. I had to pinch my hand till the blood nearly came ... Dr. Webster, who had perhaps the most trying position, behaved admirably." (Diary, Nov. 22, 1847)

Her seriousness of purpose, superior intelligence, tact, and perfect decorum eventually won the respect and acceptance of faculty, students, and townspeople.

Handwritten note for lecture two of Professor Charles Lee's class in materia medica.

Elizabeth Blackwell.
[Lecture Notes for Charles Lee, Materia Medica]
1848?
Blackwell Family Papers
Library of Congress

Elizabeth's carefully written notes for Professor Lee's class in materia medica give evidence of her attentiveness and diligence as a student.


Page 523 of the Buffalo Medical Journal and Monthly Review featuring the article Ship Fever. An Inaugural Thesis, submitted for the degree of M.D., at Geneva Medical College, January 1849 by Elizabeth Blackwell.

Buffalo Medical Journal and Monthly Review
of Medical and Surgical Science
,
vol. 4 (Feb. 1849)
National Library of Medicine

Elizabeth spent the spring and summer between her two class sessions at Blockley Almshouse in Philadelphia. Though the governing body gave her permission to observe the patients and medical staff, her presence was not well received; the young resident physicians refused to have anything to do with her.

Blockley received the poorest of Philadelphia's sick and insane and the many Irish immigrants brought there suffering from "ship fever" (typhus) provided the subject of her thesis. The thesis was very well received and given the honor of publication in the Buffalo Medical Journal.

<< Previous Page || Next Page >>