History of Medicine
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.
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.
"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.
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.
[Lecture Notes for Charles Lee, Materia Medica]
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.
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.