Emily Blackwell

Biography of a Medical Pioneer

Emily Blackwell, About 1860
Emily Blackwell, About 1860. MPI / Getty Images

Emily Blackwell Facts

Known for: co-founder of the New York Infirmary for Women and Childen; co-founder and for many years head of the Women’s Medical College; worked with her sister, Elizabeth Blackwell, first woman medical doctor (M.D.) and then carried on that work when Elizabeth Blackwell returned to England.
Occupation: physician, administrator
Dates: October 8, 1826 – September 7, 1910

Background, Family:

  • Mother: Hannah Lane Blackwell
  • Father: Samuel Blackwell
  • Siblings (Emily was 6th of the 9 surviving children of the family):
    • Elizabeth Blackwell, medical doctor
    • Anna, an artist, newspaper columnist and translator
    • Henry, married Lucy Stone, feminist and woman suffrage leader
    • Samuel, married Antoinette Brown Blackwell, early ordinated minister and suffrage leader
    • Sarah, writer and artist
    • George Washington Blackwell, landowner
    • Marianne, teacher
    • John

Education:

  • Admitted to Rush College in Chicago in 1852, Rush did not permit her to return for a second year because of opposition of patients and the Illinois State Medical Society
  • Bellevue Hospital, New York City: observer
  • Western Reserve Medical School, graduated 1854 with honors
  • Edinburgh, Scotland, studied with Sir James Young Simpson
  • Also studied at various clinics and hospitals in London, Paris and Germany

Marriage, Children:

  • Never married
  • “Romantic friendship” with Dr. Elizabeth Cushier, who was her roommate at the Infirmary and with whom she shared a house from 1883 to Emily’s death
  • Adopted a baby, Nanny, when Emily was 44 years old

Emily Blackwell Biography:

Emily Blackwell, the 6th of her parents’ nine surviving children, was born in Bristol, England, in 1826.  In 1832, her father, Samuel Blackwell, moved the family to America after a financial disaster destroyed his sugar refining business in England.

 

He opened a sugar refinery in New York City, where the family became involved in American reform movements and especially interested in abolition.  Samuel soon moved the family to Jersey City.  In 1836, fire destroyed the new refinery, and Samuel became ill.  He moved the family to Cincinnati for yet another new start, where he tried to start another sugar refinery. But he died in 1838 of malaria, leaving the older children, including Emily, to work to support the family.

Teaching

The family began a school, and Emily taught there for some years.  In 1845, the eldest child, Elizabeth, believed that the family’s finances were stable enough that she could leave, and she applied to medical schools.  No woman had ever been awarded an M.D. before, and most schools were not interested in being the first to admit a woman. Elizabeth was finally admitted to Geneva College in 1847.

Emily, meanwhile, was still teaching, but she didn’t really take to it.  In 1848, she began a study of anatomy.  Elizabeth went to Europe from 1849 – 1851 for further study, then returned to the United States where she founded a clinic.

Medical Education

Emily decided that she, too, would become a doctor, and the sisters dreamed of practicing together.

In 1852, Emily was admitted to Rush College in Chicago, after rejections from 12 other schools.  The summer before she began, she was admitted as an observer at Bellevue Hospital in New York, with the intervention of family friend Horace Greeley. She began her studies at Rush in October of 1852.

The following summer, Emily again was an observer at Bellevue.  But Rush College decided that she could not return for a second year.  The Illinois State Medical Society was strongly opposed to women in medicine, and the college also reported that patients had objected to a female medical student.

So Emily in the fall of 1853 was able to transfer to the medical school at Western Reserve University in Cleveland.  She graduated in February of 1854 with honors, and then went abroad to Edinburgh to study obstetrics and gynecology with Sir James Simpson.

 

While in Scotland, Emily Blackwell began raising money towards the hospital that she and her sister Elizabeth planned to open, to be staffed by women doctors and to serve poor women and children.  Emily also traveled to Germany, Paris and London, admitted to clinics and hospitals for further study.

Work with Elizabeth Blackwell

In 1856, Emily Blackwell returned to America, and began working at Elizabeth’s clinic in New York, the New York Dispensary for Poor Women and Children, which was a one room operation.   Dr. Marie Zakrzewska joined them in the practice.

On May 12, 1857, the three women opened the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and children, financed with fundraising by the doctors and with help from Quakers and others.  It was the first hospital in the United States explicitly for women, and the first hospital in the United States with an all-woman medical staff.  Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell served as director, Dr. Emily Blackwell as the surgeon, and Dr. Zak, as Marie Zakrzewska was called, served as the resident physician.

In 1858, Elizabeth Blackwell went to England, where she inspired Elizabeth Garrett Anderson to become a doctor.  Elizabeth returned to America and rejoined the Infirmary’s staff.

By 1860, the Infirmary was forced to relocate when its lease expired; the service had outgrown the location and bought a new location that was larger.  Emily, a great fundraiser, talked the state legislature into funding the Infirmary at $1,000 a year.

During the Civil War, Emily Blackwell worked with her sister Elizabeth on the Women’s Central Association of Relief to train nurses for service in the war on the side of the Union.  This organization evolved into the Sanitary Commission (USSC).  After draft riots in New York City, opposing the war, some in the city demanded that the Infirmary expel black women patients, but the hospital refused.

Opening a Medical College for Women

During this time, the Blackwell sisters were increasingly frustrated that medical schools would not admit women who had experience at the Infirmary.

With still few options for medical training for women, in November of 1868, the Blackwells opened the Women’s Medical College next to the Infirmary.  Emily Blackwell became the school’s professor of obstetrics and diseases of women, and Elizabeth Blackwell was the professor of hygiene, stressing prevention of disease.

The following year, Elizabeth Blackwell moved back to England, believing that there was more she could do there than in the United States to expand medical opportunities for women.  Emily Blackwell was, from that point, in charge of the Infirmary and the College, continued active medical practice, and also served as professor of obstetrics and gynecology.

Despite her pioneering activities and central role at the Infirmary and College, Emily Blackwell was actually painfully shy. She had been repeatedly offered membership in the New York County Medical Society and had turned the Society down.  But in 1871, she finally accepted.  She began to overcome her shyness and make more public contributions to various reform movements.

In the 1870s, the school and infirmary moved to yet larger quarters as it continued to grow.  In 1893, the school became one of the first to establish a four year curriculum, instead of the usual two or three years, and the next year, the school added a training program for nurses.

Dr. Elizabeth Cushier, another physician at the Infirmary, became Emily’s roommate, and they later shared a house, from 1883 to Emily’s death, with a niece of Dr. Cushier.  In 1870, Emily also adopted an infant, named Nanny, and raised her as her daughter.

Closing the Hospital

In 1899, Cornell University Medical College began admitting women.  Also, Johns Hopkins by that time had begun admitting women for medical training.  Emily Blackwell believed that the Women’s Medical College was no longer needed, with more opportunities for women’s medical education elsewhere, and funding was drying up as the school’s unique role also became less necessary.  Emily Blackwell saw that the students at the college were transferred to Cornell’s program. She closed the school in 1899 and retired in 1900.  The Infirmary continues today as NYU Downtown Hospital.

Retirement and Death

Emily Blackwell spent 18 months traveling in Europe after her retirement.  When she returned, she wintered in Montclair, New Jersey, and summered in York Cliffs, Maine. She also often traveled to California or Southern Europe for her health.

In 1906, Elizabeth Blackwell visited the United States and she and Emily Blackwell were briefly reunited.  In 1907, after leaving the U.S. again, Elizabeth Blackwell suffered an accident in Scotland which disabled her. Elizabeth Blackwell died in May, 1910, after suffering a stroke.  Emily died of enterocolitis in September of that year in her Maine home.

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