Elizabeth Blackwell was born in Bristol, England, on 3rd February, 1821. Her father, Samuel Blackwell, held progressive views and Elizabeth and her sisters were taught subjects such as Latin, Greek and mathematics.
In 1832 the Blackwell family emigrated to the United States. Samuel Blackwell was strongly opposed to slavery and after meeting William Lloyd Garrison, became involved in Abolitionist activities. When her husband died in 1838 Hannah Blackwell had nine children to look after. Elizabeth contributed to the family income by opening a small private school with two of her sisters, Anna and Marian, in Cincinnati. Later she taught in Kentucky and North Carolina.
Elizabeth became interested in the topic of medicine. At that time there were no women doctors in the United States but Elizabeth argued that many women would prefer to consult with a woman rather than a man about her health problems. She was rejected by 29 medical schools before being accepted by Geneva Medical School in 1847. The male students ostracized her and teachers refused permission for her to attend medical demonstrations. Despite these problems, when graduated in 1849 she was ranked first in her class. She also became the first woman to qualify as a doctor in the United States and over 20,000 people turned up to watch Blackwell being awarded her MD.
Elizabeth now moved to Europe where she took a midwives' course at La Maternite in Paris. While in France she contracted purulent ophthalma from a baby she was treating. As a result of this infection she lost the sight of one eye. Elizabeth now had to abandon her plans to become a surgeon.
In October, 1850, Elizabeth moved to England where she worked under Dr. James Paget at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London. It was here that she met and became friends with Florence Nightingale and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. Both these women were inspired by Elizabeth's success and became pioneers in women's medicine in Britain.
Elizabeth returned to the United States in 1851 and attempted to find work in New York. Refused posts in the city's hospitals and dispensaries, she was forced to work privately. Her experiences of gender discrimination encouraged her to write the book The Laws of Life (1852).
In 1853 Elizabeth opened a dispensary in the slums of New York. Soon afterwards she was joined by her younger sister, Emily Blackwell, who had now also graduated with a medical degree, and Marie Zakrzewska. In 1857 the three women established the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. The women gave public lectures on hygiene, created a health centre, appointed sanitary visitors and campaigned for better preventive medicine
During the American Civil War Elizabeth organized the Women's Central Association of Relief. This involved the selection and training of nurses for service in the war. Blackwell, along with Emily Blackwell and Mary Livermore, played an important role in the development of the United States Sanitary Commission.
After the war the Blackwell sisters established the Women's Medical College in New York. Elizabeth became professor of hygiene until 1869 when he moved to London to help form the National Health Society and the London School of Medicine for Women. After meeting Charles Kingsley Blackwell became active in the Christian Socialist movement.
In 1875 Elizabeth Garrett Anderson invited Blackwell to became professor of gynecology at the London School of Medicine for Children. She remained in this post until she had a serious fall in 1907.
Elizabeth Blackwell died in Hastings, Sussex, on 31st May, 1910.