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ELIZABETH BLACKWELL (1821 – 1910) First Female Doctor

In American History, Doctors, Feminists, History, People from England, Victorian Women on October 13, 2010 at 5:13 PM

 

Elizabeth Blackwell

Elizabeth Blackwell’s parents were Quakers.  They believed in equality and educated their sons and daughters equally.  So, when Blackwell decided to be a doctor, her family was totally supportive.  Convincing the rest of the world, however, was not so easy. 

Blackwell was ten when her family moved from England to New York.  When her father’s business failed, they move to Cincinnati.  Shortly after settling  there her father died, leaving the family without income.

Blackwell became a teacher, but she didn’t find it intellectually stimulating enough.  When her girlfriend, Mary Donaldson, got cancer she believed that her suffering would have been less if she could have been treated by a woman doctor.  Donaldson tried to convince Blackwell that she had the intellect and personality to be a great doctor.  As a student, Blackwell was not interested in the sciences, preferring metaphysics and history.  But, her friend’s request haunted her, and she decided to go for it. 

GETTING INTO MEDICAL SCHOOL          Blackwell’s first course of action was to write letters to several physicians to solicit their advice about applying to med school.  All six contacts advised her to give up the idea as it was impossible for a woman to get a medical education.  Dr. Joseph Warrington said in a letter, “Elizabeth, it is of no use trying. Thee cannot gain admission to these schools. Thee must go to Paris and don masculine attire to gain the necessary knowledge.”1  Blackwell was not discouraged.  While she worked as a governess for Dr. John Dixon, of Ashville, North Carolina, she started educating herself in science and classical languages by reading the books in his library. She moved to South Carolina, supported herself by teaching music lessons, and continued her homeschooling from the library of Dixon’s brother.

With a solid background and determination, Blackwell applied to 13 medical schools.  She was rejected outright from every one of them because she was a woman.  This discrimination was foreign to her egalitarian upbringing.  Finally, the faculty of Geneva College in upstate New York (now Hobart College) asked the students to decide Blackwell’s fate.  They unanimously agreed to admit her because they thought her application was a joke.    

In 1846, Blackwell matriculated, and she graduated two years later, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States.  Eventually she won over her fellow students by her intelligence and commitment, but she was shunned by the citizens of Geneva who believed her career choice was very inappropriate. 

On January 23, 1849, the same ladies who were rude to Blackwell had a change of heart with her success.  They packed the Presbyterian Church to witness her historic accomplishment, applauding enthusiastically when she received her diploma.  During the ceremony, Charles Lee, Dean of Geneva Medical College, expressed his respect for the first female medical graduate, but in the program he added a footnote that said he supported medical training for qualified women, but the “inconveniences attending the admission of females to all the lectures in a medical school, are so great, that he will feel compelled on all future occasions to oppose such a practice …”2  Her success was inspiring to other women, however, and within three years of her graduation, twenty women completed medical training at various colleges. 

WHAT’S A GIRL TO DO…WITH A MEDICAL DEGREE?    After graduation, Blackwell planned to spend a few months in Philadelphia, studying personally with a Dr. Bryan, and then go to Paris and eventually return to New York to establish her practice where she could expect to earn six thousand dollars a year.

After some time in London studying at a hospital, Blackwell did go to Paris.  The only opportunity open to her there was to train to become a midwife.   While she was in Paris she contracted “purulent opthalmia” and lost the sight in one eye.  This forced her to abandon her dream of becoming a surgeon.

In 1851 she returned to New York City and at age 30 tried to set up her own practice.  People were hesitant trust her as a doctor, so she had to consider another options.  She opened a dispensary to give out-patient treatment to poor women and children.  In this setting, she wasn’t able to accomplish as much as she hoped, so in 1957 she closed the dispensary and opened a hospital, the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children (now the New York University Downtown Hospital).  Her partners were two recent medical school graduates: her sister Dr. Emily Blackwell, and Dr. Marie Zakrzewska. 

Even though Blackwell was a busy professional woman, something was missing from her life.  She was never interested in marriage, but she adopted an orphan girl named Katherine “Kitty” Barry.  Blackwell and her daughter made periodic trips to England, and she also made history there.  In 1859 while in London, she was the first woman to have her name entered into the Medical Register of the United Kingdom. 

HELPING OTHER WOMEN FOLLOW IN HER FOOTSTEPS       Back in the States, when the Civil War broke out, Blackwell helped create the Women’s Central Association of Relief, training nurses to treat the wounded soldiers.  Her work at the hospital was going well, but she was committed to opening a medical college for women.  In 1868 Blackwell founded The Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary to provide training for female medical and nursing students.  Blackwell was the Professor of Hygiene, and Emily was the Professor of Obstetrics and Diseases of Women. 

In 1869, Blackwell left Emily in charge, and she and Kitty returned to England where they lived for the rest of Blackwell’s life.  She helped to create the National Health Society, established a private practice and taught gynecology at the London School of Medicine for Women, which she helped to found, and the London School of Medicine for Children. 

In addition to the demands of a pioneering, practicing doctor, Blackwell found the time to write six books focusing on hygiene, the medical treatment for women, raising healthy children, and her autobiography.

On May 31, 1910, Blackwell, 89 years old, died in Hastings, England.  She was buried in Kilmun, in the Highlands of Scotland, one of her favorite places on earth.

QUESTION:  Have you ever done something that most people thought was wrong but that you knew was right for you?  Was it easy or hard?  Were you successful?

©2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved

Sources:

1 http://www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/blackwell/admission.html

2 http://www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/blackwell/graduation.html

http://womenshistory.about.com/cs/medicine/a/blackwell_emin.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Blackwell

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hobart_and_William_Smith_Colleges

http://campus.hws.edu/his/blackwell/articles/oldnews.html

http://library.hws.edu/archives/pdfs/tripp.pdf

http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/mcc:@sum(@field(OTHER+@band(Blackwell,+Elizabeth++1821+1910+))+@field(SUBJ+@band(Blackwell,+Elizabeth++1821+1910+)))

http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/mcc:@sum(@field(OTHER+@band(Blackwell,+Elizabeth++1821+1910+))+@field(SUBJ+@band(Blackwell,+Elizabeth++1821+1910+)))

http://www.nlm.nih.gov/changingthefaceofmedicine/physicians/biography_35.html

Elizabeth Blackwell’s autobiography, Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women, published in 1895, is out of print.  I could not find it anywhere online or  in any local libraries.

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INA COOLBRITH (1841 – 1928) 1st Poet Laureate of California & Librarian

In Bohemian Club, California History, Mormons, People, Poetry, Trivia, Victorian Women, women, Writers on September 1, 2010 at 2:28 PM

Ina Coolbrith

Ina Coolbrith loved words, and she wasn’t afraid to use them.  When she got angry with her friend John Muir for setting her up on a disastrous blind date, she “rhymed him” as punishment, with 75 lines of humorous verse.  There was, however, one aspect of her life she was obligated never to reveal in any form: who her family was.

Josephine Donna Smith was born in Nauvoo, Illinois, the youngest of three girls. Her father, Don Carlos Smith, was the brother of Joseph Smith Jr., founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Don Carlos died when Coolbrith was five months old, and when she was two, a sister died.  That left her mother, Agnes, with two mouths to feed and very few options. 

William Pickett was a lawyer and owner of a printing press in St. Louis. When Joseph Smith was murdered, he ventured north to get the story of violent anti-Mormon sentiment first hand.   He married Agnes and moved his new family to St. Louis where they welcomed twin boys.  For their safety, Pickett had one requirement of his new wife. He extracted a promise that Agnes and the children forget their past and keep it a secret for as long as they lived. 

THE PROMISED LAND             Gold rush fever tempted Pickett to move to California, so in 1851 he loaded the wagon train and headed toward sunshine and promises.  They set up their first home in Marysville, north of Sacramento, to be near the gold mines.  When they got exasperated with their lack of luck, they moved to the burgeoning city of San Francisco.  In 1855 their house was robbed and then burned, so they uprooted themselves again and moved to Los Angeles.

In the pueblo of Los Angeles, Coolbrith, 14 years old, did something she’d never done before: go to school.  She enrolled in the girls’ department of the first public school when it opened in 1855, and attended classes for three years.  The rest of her education was home study or from reading the classics in her step-father’s extensive library.  She showed an aptitude for writing poetry when she wrote her first English composition in verse.  She explained to the teacher that she thought it was easier than writing in a narrative style. When she was 15, she had her first poem titled “My Childhood’s Home” published in the Los Angeles Star.

When Coolbrith was 17, she married Robert Carsley.  He turned out to be a jealous, abusive man, and Coolbrith filed for divorce three years later.  The young woman received a lot of support during her marital problems, but there was one burden she carried alone.  She had a baby that died in infancy.  The existence of this child was never discovered until after Coolbrith died.  Like every young girl, she dreamed of being a wife and mother, but those dreams were dashed by the time she was 20 years old.

STARTING OVER                         In order to make another fresh start, Coolbrith and her family moved back to San Francisco. Perhaps as a way to reinvent herself or to create a nom de plume, she started using the name Ina Donna Coolbrith (her mother’s maiden name).  She got a job as an elementary English teacher, wrote and published poems and became friends with some important people of letters including Bret Hart, Joaquin Miller, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) and Ambrose Bierce. 

Coolbrith had many poems published in the prestigious Overland Monthly, and she was asked to write the commencement ode for the 1871 graduating class of the University of California at Berkeley, the first woman to be accorded this honor.  The verse entitled “California” was a love letter to her adopted state.

In 1872, the all-male Bohemian Club was founded as a place for authors, artists, musicians and patrons of the arts to congregate.  Since they were women, Coolbrith and Mrs. Margaret Bowman made the curtains for their first location.   A few months later, acknowledging that although qualified the only reason the poet was not admitted into the club was because of her gender, the group elected Coolbrith and Bowman as their first honorary members.

GETTING A JOB                           Within two years Coolbrith’s life was affected by two major events: her mom died and she was hired as the librarian of the Oakland Free Library with a salary of $80 a month.  Her young nephew and niece were hired as first and second assistants respectively.  Despite having a limited education, she was responsible for acquisitions and created the first catalog.  But she got the most pleasure out of advising young people in what to read.  Two students who never forgot her caring, supportive advice were Jack London and Isadora Duncan. 

In 1881 the first anthology of Coolbrith’s poems, A Perfect Day, was published.  She found the time to continue to write until there was conflict at the library.  Over a period of ten years, the new Board of Directors made changes that seemed to be motivated by removing the head librarian from her post.  During that time, Coolbrith’s professional life was not all difficult.  In 1886 she helped to establish the first Arbor Day in California, and a branch library in Oakland was named after her.  But behind her back, her nephew was gaining more responsibility directly from the library Board. 

Ultimately, Coolbrith made have inadvertently caused the ax to fall on herself.  She gave an interview to a reporter of the Oakland Times illuminating some of the problems with the library.  Three weeks later the headline announced that Coolbrith was fired without cause with only three day’s notice.  Support for Coolbrith was widespread, and newspapers from Seattle to San Diego wrote editorials denouncing the decision.

After 18 years of service to the community and countless hours of inspiration to students, Coolbrith was forced to turn over her duties to her nephew, Henry Peterson.  Coolbrith’s ouster became a political issue and was a contributing factor in librarians and teachers becoming civil servants in California.1

The public’s affection for Coolbrith never diminished, and her lectures on early California writers were well attended.  When she was 57 years old she was hired as the head librarian at the Mercantile Library of San Francisco and held that post for one year until the Bohemian Club offered her a part-time position as librarian.  Even though it only paid $50 a month, she accepted to have more time to write a book based on her lectures. 

In 1906 Coolbrith was confined to bed with rheumatism.  When the earthquake hit at 5:00 am on April 18, she and her live-in housekeeper had just enough time to gather up the two cats and evacuate.  Later that morning, the fire that ultimate destroyed most of San Francisco engulfed Coolbrith’s house and burned all her manuscripts, correspondence with famous authors and books. 

HONORS AND ACCOLADES     Coolbrith bounced back and served as president of the Congress of Authors and Journalists at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco in 1915.  During the event she was named the Poet Laureate of California and was presented with a symbolic crown of laurel leaves.  It was an honorary title, with no stipend attached to it.  It wasn’t until four years later that a resolution was filed with the California Secretary of State making the commendation official and giving Coolbrith the distinction of being the first female poet laureate in the United States.

The poet received other honors both personal and professional.  Luther Burbank named a hybrid poppy “crimson eschscholtzia Ina Coolbrith” after her, and in 1923 Mills College awarded her an honorary Masters of Arts degree.

In February 1928, Coolbrith fell into a coma and died a few days before her 84th birthday.  The woman who was born to a Mormon family and married by a Methodist minister was laid to rest by an Episcopal priest.  A young man named Jesse Winter Smith attended her funeral.  Coolbrith had told him years earlier that she was not embarrassed by her Mormon background and he could reveal it after she died if he wanted to.  He did, and a story appeared in the New York Sun and all the Bay area papers making the connection, bringing Ina Coolbrith’s life full circle.

QUESTION:  If you only had a few minutes to evacuate from a fire, what would you take with you?

©2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved

Sources:

Digitized copy of her book of poems A Perfect Day  http://www.archive.org/stream/aperfectdaypoem00coolrich#page/n7/mode/2up

 Rhodehamel, Josephine DeWitt, Ina Coolbrith, Librarian and Laureate of California. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1973.

1Conmy, Peter Thomas, “The Dismissal of Ina Coolbrith as Head Librarian of Oakland Free Public Library and a Discussion of the Tenure Status of Head Librarians.” Oakland, California, Oakland Public Library, 1969.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ina_Coolbrith

VICTORIA C. WOODHULL (1838 – 1927) First Woman to Run for U. S. President

In American History, American Presidents, Biography, Feminists, History, People, Presidential Candidates, Trivia, Victorian Women, women on June 14, 2010 at 9:21 PM

Victoria C. Woodhull

While Victoria California Woodhull’s endeavors did not all end successfully, she was very successful at laying a foundation for women to build on in business and politics.

Woodhull’s childhood was unstable.  Her family was poor, and love seemed to be a commodity her parents, Roxanna and Reuben Buckman Claflin, couldn’t afford.  The best way Claflin knew to deal with his ten children was to beat them.  Ironically, he had acquired wealth through real estate speculations, but lost everything when Victoria, the seventh child, was three.  Roxanna was born into money, the heiress of a rich Pennsylvania German family.  Being waited on hand and foot limited her motivation, and she never became literate or gained any ability to fend for herself.   

Woodhull’s formal education copied her mother’s.  She only spent a few years in school because she was pressed upon to help out so much at home, being treated almost like a slave.  Woodhull missed going to school and was an excellent student, but she acquired knowledge from other sources.

 BEING GUIDED BY THE SPIRIT                                                                              Woodhull believed in angels and lived with them as friends.  Every day she went into a trance and communicated with them, often sitting on the roof of the house for hours to escape the cruel, demanding life inside.  She had a simple faith in God, and took great comfort in relating to the angels and receiving channeled messages from them.  She credits these beings with giving her the ability to retain everything she read.

The angels were not imaginary beings but the spirits of people close to Woodhull.  When she was three, her nurse died suddenly.  Woodhull clearly remembered joining the nurse on her journey to the spirit world, being carried there by her.  Her mother recounted that her daughter’s body lay immobile, as if she were dead, for the three hours of this experience.  Woodhull also lost two sisters who died in childhood, and they became invisible playmates to her.  She also claimed to receive a prophecy from a spirit who confirmed that she would one day be a writer and publisher and leader of her people.

THIRD TIME’S A CHARM                                                                                           On the way to fulfilling her destiny, Woodhull married at age 14.  Her husband was 28, and it was not a happy union.  For two years she had become increasingly sick with the fever, and eventually Dr. Canning Woodhull was called to treat her.  When she recovered, he escorted Woodhull to a picnic and on the way home proposed marriage. This terrified her but her parents accepted the offer, and four months later they were married.  Dr. Woodhull’s fidelity lasted two days before he resumed his life as a philanderer and a drunk who lived beyond his means.

Within two years they had a baby boy, and it was born developmentally disabled.  Woodhull and the baby returned to her family and she earned her living with her clairvoyance and wisely invested her money. Then she had a healthy baby girl by another drunken philanderer.

Woodhull finally met her soul mate in Col. James H. Blood, a loving and compassionate man who was also a Spiritualist.  They were married spiritually if not legally, and Woodhull retained the name she was known by.  When Woodhull would go into a trance and channel the messages of the angels, Blood would diligently write down every word.

GOING WHERE NO WOMEN HAD GONE BEFORE                                          In 1869 Woodhull turned her attention to business and with her sister, Tennie, became the first female brokers on Wall Street when they established Woodhull, Claflin & Company.  They were supported partly by Woodhull’s investments and the respect and deep pockets of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who appreciated Woodhull’s clairvoyant abilities.  The sisters did not participate in the daily operations of the company, but they were nevertheless mocked in the press for being women in influential positions in finance.

The following year, these entrepreneurs started a journal called Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly which became a platform for their views on politics, finance and women’s issues.  If they weren’t controversial before, they were now.  Their opinions varied widely from the mainstream, and no topic was off limits.  They advocated the elimination of the gold standard, graduated income tax, legalized prostitution, spiritualism and vegetarianism.  They promoted women’s rights including sex education and “free love.” Woodhull believed in monogamy, but also that a woman retained the right to determine with whom she had sex.  And, contrary to the social mores of the time, she strongly defended a woman’s right to leave a bad marriage.  Woodhull quickly became a leader in the women’s suffrage movement preaching equality, freedom of choice, and the right to vote.  

IT’S AN HONOR TO BE NOMINATED                                                                 In 1871 Woodhull received a message from the same spirit that had earlier predicted her future, telling her to run for President.  Her husband dismissed the notion as ridiculous, and the friends that she consulted laughed at her.  But, the idea grew on her, and she trusted her spirit’s guidance. She announced her intention to run, and in June 1872, she was officially nominated as the candidate to represent the newly created Equal Rights Party.  Frederick Douglas, a former slave, was nominated as her running mate, but he did not accept. Woodhull’s platform was to advance women’s political equality with men. She received support from trade unions, socialists and women’s rights advocates, but some of her ideas were so radical that more conservative suffragists like Susan B. Anthony would not support her.

Woodhull’s nomination was controversial not only because of her gender, but the legality of it was suspect.  Technically she was ineligible because she wouldn’t be 35 years old, as mandated by the Constitution, until six months after the inauguration.  However, since Ohio, her birth state, didn’t require birth certificates until 1867, Woodhull’s age couldn’t be confirmed.  Also, the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote wasn’t ratified until 1920, which implied that a woman couldn’t run for President either.  And some believed that because she was a woman she was not a citizen, also a requirement for President.

Ulysses S. Grant easily won reelection, leaving Woodhull’s destiny unfulfilled.  In 1876 she divorced Colonel Blood and a few months later moved to England with her children.  She earned her living on the lecture circuit.  Wealthy banker John Biddulph Martin attended one of her talks and ended up becoming Woodhull’s third husband when she was 45 years old.  This time she assumed his name.  As Victoria Woodhull Martin, she and her daughter published a magazine called the Humanitarian until she was widowed.   She died in England on June 9, 1927.

QUESTION:  What are the best and worst things about being President of the United States?

© 2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved

Sources:

http://www.victoria-woodhull.com/tiltonbio.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victoria_Woodhull

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_presidential_election,_1872

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAWwoodhullV.htm

http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/ww/people_woodhull.html