Dr. Emily Blackwell worked with her sister Elizabeth Blackwell to establish the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, the first hospital for women in the United States, and the Woman's Medical College of the New York Infirmary.
Emily Blackwell was born in 1826. The Blackwell family was said to have been a stimulating and intellectual environment to grow up in. Her father, Samuel Blackwell, was a reformer, lay preacher, and dissident. In 1832 he moved his family from Bristol, England, to the United States, settling near Cincinnati. Educated mostly at home, Emily Blackwell was described as painfully shy, but inquisitive and intelligent. She was known to perform scientific experiments in the Blackwell attic and became an amateur expert on the subject of birds and flowers, mostly through extensive reading and observations made near the family's home.
The fact that her famous sister Elizabeth Blackwell (who was the first woman in America to earn a medical degree) had forged a path into medicine before her did not make Emily's entry into the profession any easier. Her application for admission to medical school was rejected by eleven schools simply because she was a woman. Although she was accepted by the twelfth school, Rush Medical College in Chicago, pressure from the Medical Society of Illinois led the school to discontinue her studies at the end of her first year. She refused to give up, and instead studied medicine privately for a time, attended clinical lectures in New York City, and took teaching jobs in order to earn extra money while trying to find a school that would admit her.
Although her older sister had warned her of the grim prospects women doctors faced, Emily Blackwell was not deterred. She was finally accepted into Western Reserve University's medical school in Cleveland, Ohio, where she earned her M.D. degree in 1854.
Dr. Emily Blackwell's then traveled to Europe to continue her studies. First, she went to Edinburgh, Scotland, to study for a year with Sir James Young Simpson. She so impressed him that he recommended her to several of Europe's most important clinics. As Simpson noted in a letter to Blackwell in 1891, he had rarely met a young physician as well versed in literature, science, and medical practice. Following a second year of clinical study and observation in England, France, and Germany, Emily Blackwell returned to New York to work with her sister.
In 1857 Emily and Elizabeth Blackwell, along with Marie Zakrzewska, opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. As all three women knew from personal experience, they were providing a valuable opportunity for women, as patients and as fellow physicians. Although Elizabeth Blackwell was largely responsible for founding the Infirmary, the credit for its survival and growth belongs primarily to Emily Blackwell. After two years of unceasing work, the elder Blackwell and Zakrzewska left to pursue opportunities elsewhere, leaving Emily Blackwell to run the institution.
For the next forty years, Dr. Emily Blackwell took over the management of the infirmary, overseeing surgery, nursing, and bookkeeping. Soon after taking over, Dr. Blackwell traveled to Albany, the state capital, to convince the legislature to provide the hospital with funds that would ensure long-term financial stability. Her remarkable administrative skills gradually transformed an institution housed in a rented, sixteen-room house into a hospital that grew so steadily it was forced to continually move to ever-larger quarters. By 1874 the Infirmary served over 7,000 patients annually.