In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman in the US to earn a medical degree when she graduated from Geneva Medical College, a small school in western New York. She only got in because the male students thought her application was part of a hoax.
By the time Blackwell applied to Geneva, she’d already been rejected from several other schools. When Geneva dean Charles Lee received her application, he and his male faculty decided to let the student body vote on whether to admit a woman. According to PBS News Hour, Lee explained that a single “no” vote from the 150 male students would lead the college to reject Blackwell. Apparently thinking the exercise was a practical joke, every student voted yes.
On Oct. 20, 1847, Lee notified Blackwell of her admission to Geneva in a letter:
A quorum of the faculty assembled last evening for the first time during the session, and it was thought important to submit your proposal to the class (of students), who have had a meeting this day, and acted entirely on their own behalf, without any interference on the part of the faculty. I send you the result of their deliberations, and need only add that there are no fears but that you can, by judicious management, not only “disarm criticism,” but elevate yourself without detracting in the least from the dignity of the profession.
The letter included a resolution adopted by the college stating that Blackwell would be admitted and pledging that “no conduct of ours shall cause her to regret her attendance at this institution.”
That wasn’t entirely the case. As Blackwell later recalled in her autobiography, “a doctor’s wife at the table avoided any communication with me, and… the ladies stopped to stare at me, as a curious animal.” Her diary entries recall multiple days when she was asked to leave an operation, and another time when she was advised to skip a lecture on reproductive anatomy.
Google is honoring Blackwell today (Feb. 3) to commemorate the 197th anniversary of her birth.
Blackwell went on to work in England and Paris, returning to New York City in 1851. She hoped to establish a practice there, but encountered a “blank wall of social and professional antagonism.” She dedicated the rest of her career to public health and preventative medicine, and to promoting medical opportunities for women. Blackwell’s younger sister, Emily, was the third woman in the US to earn a medical degree.