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GWIMS Historical Spotlight

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Women in Medicine and Science


Elizabeth Blackwell, MD
(1821-1910): A fabulous first

Elizabeth Blackwell, MD (1821-1910)
 National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health



In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman in the United States to be granted an MD degree. Blackwell began her pioneering journey after a deathly ill friend insisted she would have received better care from a female doctor.

Turned away by more than 10 medical schools, Blackwell refused a professor’s suggestion that she disguise herself as a male to gain admission. “It was to my mind a moral crusade,” she wrote at the time. “It must be pursued in the light of day, and with public sanction, in order to accomplish its end.”

Blackwell ultimately attended Geneva Medical College in western New York: Male students there asked their opinion agreed to admit her, thinking the matter a mere prank.

In the years following graduation, Blackwell struggled to find work, but in 1857, she co-founded the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children to serve the poor. The hospital, like the Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary she created in 1867 and many other efforts, was also intended to support and encourage women hoping to pursue careers in medicine.




Emilie du Chatelet (1706 - 1749)

Gabrielle-Emilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, the daughter of the French court’s chief of protocol, married the marquis du Chatelet in 1725. She lived the life of a courtier and bore three children. But at age 27, she began studying mathematics seriously and then branched into physics. This interest intensified as she began an affair with the philosopher Voltaire, who also had a love of science. Their scientific collaborations—they outfitted a laboratory at du Chatelet’s home, Chateau de Cirey, and, in a bit of a competition, each entered an essay into a contest on the nature of fire (neither won)—outlasted their romance. Du Chatelet’s most lasting contribution to science was her French translation of Isaac Newton’s Principia, which is still in use today. At age 43, she fell in love with a young military officer and became pregnant; she died following complications during the birth of their child.

Emilie du Chatelet (1706-1749) gwims women in science
(The Granger Collection, New York)


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