This is my March 2021 series on Important Women in American Medical History. The order of the women I am talking about this year is based only on the order in which they appear in this photo. I hope you enjoy learning about these amazing women!
Clara Barton and Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell
In my medical career, I have been mistaken for every kind of health care provider you can bump into in a hospital – nurse, respiratory therapist, you name it. When I was working 100 hours per week, hair up in a ponytail and no makeup, I looked (and was!) much younger. Never, therefore, was “doctor” the first thing patients assumed me to be.
Our two women highlighted here not only faced these kinds of assumptions, but were among the first to break through them. They each began as schoolteachers, since that was one of the very few jobs considered “proper” for women, then went on to pursue their interests and passions to make incredible contributions to medicine.
Clara Barton “Angel of the Battlefield” and Kick-Ass Lady
Clara Barton lived from 1821 to 1912. She was first a teacher and then a patent clerk. She was incredibly shy, so it was her parents who encouraged her to become a teacher (at age 17!) to help her come out of her shell. She headed up several projects that expanded kids’ access to public education. As a patent clerk, she endured three years of harassment from her male co-workers, ending with her being demoted. She was finally fired from this government position due to expressing her abolitionist ideas. (Once Abraham Lincoln was elected, she returned to a position as a copyist at the patent office; she hoped to help more women work in government positions.)
With no medical training, she taught herself how to tend to wounded soldiers during the Civil War. She earned the title “Angel of the Battlefield” while traveling with the Union Army at the war front. When the war ended, she headed up the Office of Missing Soldiers. In the three years before she closed this office, she helped identify and properly bury soldiers.
This work exhausted her physically and emotionally, so on doctor’s orders she traveled to Europe in 1869, where she learned about the recent (1864 in Geneva) formation of the International Red Cross. She wanted the United States to have its own branch of this new organization, but President Hayes said there would never be a need – that the Civil War was the worst the U.S. would ever go through. She finally persuaded the next U.S. President Chester Arthur that the Red Cross could respond to other events, including natural disasters. She founded the American Red Cross in 1881. Barton was its president for 23 years, when she resigned at age 83. She lived to age 90, and was an abolitionist and a suffragist during her time.
“It irritates me to be told how things have always been done. I defy the tyranny of precedent. I cannot afford the luxury of a closed mind.” – Clara Barton
Elizabeth Blackwell – First Woman Granted a Medical Doctor Degree in the U.S.
Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell lived from 1821 to 1910. Born in England and after moving to America at age 11, she first became a school teacher. After ending up working in Kentucky, she found herself satisfied with her work, but, with her abolitionist upbringing, was too outraged by the realities of slavery, so she quit.
Blackwell then became interested in medicine. After rejecting suggestions to go back to Europe or to disguise herself as a man in order to get medical training, and after being rejected from every medical school she applied to, finally in 1843, she was admitted to the Geneva Medical College in upstate New York. Every single member of the student body was allowed to vote on whether to accept her, and it had to be unanimous. They all – 150 men – agreed to her admission – as a joke! The joke, in the end, was on them, as she became the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States, in 1849.
After pursuing more medical training in Europe, where she was rejected everywhere (for being a woman) except the maternity hospital in Paris. In 1857 she established a clinic in New York City, and also began publicly advocating for the education of girls. During the Civil War, she helped organize and train nurses. The list of her accomplishments is so long – and in the face of so many obstacles set before her as a women – that she has a setting at an incredible work of art called “The Dinner Party” by Judy Chicago.
Blackwell’s legacy includes her writings and lectures advocating for the social and economic factors of illness. This was referred to as “feminine”, this being a criticism. Her many honors include being in the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and a yearly award given in her name by the American Medical Women’s Association to a woman who demonstrates “outstanding service to humankind.”
“It is not easy to be a pioneer but oh, it is fascinating! I would not trade one moment, even the worst moment, for all the riches in the world.” – Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell