Born in Bristol, England in 1821 Elizabeth was the third of nine children.
Her father, a successful sugar refiner moved the family to New York in 1832 and later to Cincinnati where he continued refining sugar, but his business was near collapse because he refused to refine sugar processed by slaves.
He became an abolitionist as did Elizabeth.
Then tragedy struck. When Elizabeth was 17, her father died suddenly, leaving a widow, nine
children and huge debts. To help support the family, Elizabeth and two
of her sisters taught school, but income was a struggle.
At 23, Elizabeth became a school teacher in Kentucky. But Kentucky was
a Southern slave state and Elizabeth was confronted by the horrors of slavery, chained human beings bought and sold and families brutalized, it was too much for her and she came home.
It was then Elizabeth had a life changing experience.
Her friend was dying from what today might be classified as uterine
cancer. She told Elizabeth of the insensitivity and ignorance of male
doctors, and that a knowledgeable female physician could have provided more compassionate care.
Elizabeth decided to become a doctor, unaware of the discrimination that
would confront her. She also needed $3,000 to pay for medical school, a
seemingly impossible sum.
Desperately needing to raise money, Elizabeth marshaled her courage and returned to a Southern slave state, to Asheville, North Carolina to teach. There she lodged with Reverend John Dickson, a former physician, who allowed her to study his medical books.
Elizabeth then moved into the home of Reverend Dickson’s brother, a
leading Charleston, North Carolina doctor, Samuel Henry Dickson and at
25, she began teaching at a boarding school.
With Dr. Dickson’s assistance, Elizabeth contacted various medical
schools but being a woman, they all rejected her.
The next year, Elizabeth moved to Philadelphia to study anatomy under
Dr. Jonathan Allen but even with her medical education she was rejected
by the Philadelphia and New York medical schools despite now having a medical education that far exceeded many male Pre-Med students.
Then stunningly in October, 1847 the Geneva Medical College in upstate
New York accepted her.
At Geneva, Elizabeth’s academics were stellar and the all-male faculty
and students adjusted to her presence. But she was alone, isolated from
many social activities, as the town of Geneva saw her as an oddball. Yet she persevered.
On January 23rd, 1849 Elizabeth made history when she became the first
woman to graduate from a U.S. medical school. Given all she had overcome
it was reported that when she received her degree, the dean, Dr. Charles
Lee stood up and then bowed to her.
Now a doctor, Elizabeth moved to Europe to continue her studies. But the
hospitals rejected her for being a woman. Finally in Paris, La Maternité
hospital let her enroll as a midwife, not a doctor, and she gained
extensive experience treating patients.
In 1850, Elizabeth was accepted at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London
and the following year, she returned to New York City and established
her own medical practice.
At first she had few patients, even female patients, because as a female
physician, she was seen as a freak. But the New York Tribune and other
publications wrote glowingly of her education, skills and perseverance.
At the age of 31, Elizabeth published the first of her many writings,
and she gave lectures, all of which added to her credibility.
The next year, Elizabeth opened a tiny medical dispensary, and she
mentored Marie Zakrzewska, who also wanted to become a doctor.
In 1857, Elizabeth, with Dr. Zakrzewska and Elizabeth’s sister Emily,
now also a doctor, expanded the dispensary to become the New York
Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, to care for the needy, and to
employ female physicians.
Eleven years later, the infirmary expanded to become The Woman’s Medical
College of the New York Infirmary, a medical school for women, as the
barriers of bigotry against women in the medical profession had begun to
fall, as Elizabeth led the way.