Blog
Mar 18
Blog: Elizabeth Blackwell, America's First Woman MD

For Women’s History Month, we are highlighting a few of the many dedicated women whose work continues to inspire and influence our nation's healthcare and save lives. 

After being turned down by all the medical schools in New York City and Philadelphia, Elizabeth Blackwell, MD (1821-1910), undeterred, applied to twelve more in the northeast. In 1847, Geneva Medical College said yes, thinking it a good joke. Two years later, Dr. Blackwell became the first woman in the United States to be granted a medical degree.

“At the time, it was an astounding achievement for a woman. Few believed she could do it, but she more than proved them wrong. I feel a connection with her because I was educated at the same training institute she attended,” says Karin Borrelli, MD, FAAFP, Medical Director of Saratoga Hospital Medical Group Primary Care – Malta and Leadership Board member. “Geneva had become a part of SUNY Upstate in my time. I have this sense that my opportunity was directly related to what she had done. She paved the way for me and other women, changing the face of medicine.” 

Dr. Blackwell initially became a teacher and had no interest in medicine. She changed her mind upon the death of a dear friend of hers, who said she “would have been spared her worst suffering if her doctor had been a woman.” That drove her to not only earn a medical degree against all odds, but to continue the push to open the doors of medicine to women. 

Dr. Blackwell was known to have said, “If society will not admit of woman’s free development, then society must be remodeled.” She dedicated most of her life to do just that while providing the best possible healthcare in honor of her friend.
 
Dr. Blackwell and her colleagues founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children in 1857, which extended into a medical college for women ten years later. In her declining years, she published her book in 1895, “Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women,” which continued her legacy long after she passed. 
 
“Breaking glass ceilings is often a group effort that takes time,” Dr. Borrelli says. “Fortunately, she had allies. Both women and men who believed she was right stood up and said so, supporting her and rolling up their sleeves alongside her. Other women of her time and later took up the call and achieved much in several areas of medicine.”

One hundred and seventy-two years after Dr. Blackwell earned her Doctorate of Medicine, more women than men were enrolled in medical school for the first time in the United States in 2019, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). 

“Dr. Blackwell’s example demonstrates that a woman can achieve any career she sets her mind to,” Dr. Borrelli says. “I enjoy my work in primary care and am grateful to the women who came before me. The least I can do, that any of us can do, is to be a good role model for those yet to come.”

Interested in a medical career at Saratoga Hospital? Please visit our Physician Recruitment and Careers pages. Learn more about Dr. Borrelli and Saratoga Hospital Medical Group – Primary Care at SaratogaHospital.org


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