Archival Collections
Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Elizabeth Blackwell Letters, circa 1850-1884 

Creator: 
Blackwell, Elizabeth, 1821-1910.
Phys. Desc: 
0.42 linear ft. ( 1 document box)
Call Number: 
MS#0124
Location: 
Rare Book & Manuscript Library
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Biographical Note

Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell was born in Bristol, England, in 1821 to a politically outspoken father committed to fairness among his male and female children. In 1832, Samuel Blackwell moved his family to the United States in part for financial reasons but also to participate in the abolitionist movement. Two of his daughters would grow up to continue this fight against slavery and to work towards women's rights, specifically in the area of women in medicine. After years of struggling to be taken seriously and receiving rejections from 29 schools, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States in 1849. Upon graduating first in her class from New York's Geneva Medical College, she left for Europe, working in clinics in London and Paris. It was during her time in England in 1850 that Blackwell's cousin, Bessie Rayner Parkes, introduced her to fellow women's rights pioneer Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon. Then, while studying midwifery in France, Blackwell contracted purulent opthalmia, costing her sight in one eye and prompting her return to New York in 1851. Sexism in the United States limited Blackwell's opportunities for employment and for much intellectual exchange with other physicians, so, in 1853, Blackwell opened her own small dispensary. Then in 1857, along with her sister Emily, also a doctor, and their friend Dr. Marie Zakrzewska, she founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. At the onset of the Civil War, Blackwell organized the Women's Central Association of Relief, training nurses for war service. She and her sister also helped to establish the United States Sanitary Commission. After the war, the Blackwell sisters founded the Women's Medical College at their infirmary in New York where Elizabeth served on the faculty until 1869 when she moved back to London. Blackwell gave up the practice of medicine in the 1870s due to her declining health, but she continued to teach and campaign for increased opportunities for women in the medical field. She died in England in 1910 at the age of 89. In 1949, 100 years after she received her M.D., the American Medical Women's Association created the Elizabeth Blackwell Medal to honor outstanding contributions made by women in the medical field.

Scope and Contents

The Elizabeth Blackwell Letters are a collection of personal letters to her friend Barbara Bodichon. They include details of Blackwell's professional activities, her travels, and major events in her life, such as her decision to adopt a child. Many of the letters are congratulatory or condolatory of events in Bodichon's life. Also included in the collection are letters to Bodichon from three other women - Bessie Parkes, Dr. Emily Blackwell, and Elizabeth Whitehead. Parkes was Blackwell's cousin and Bodichon's best friend and introduced the two during Blackwell's study in England in 1850. Emily Blackwell was Elizabeth's younger sister and is mentioned in some of Elizabeth's letters to Bodichon. The four letters from Whitehead are signed simply "Elizabeth;" however, it was determined in 1964 by Elinor Rice Hays, a Blackwell family biographer, that they had not been written by Blackwell. They were therefore attributed to Whitehead based on Hester Burton's biography of Bodichon. A note is attached to each of the four letters. A few of the letters in this collection mention Florence Nightingale, Bodichon's cousin. Included at the beginning of this collection is a "Contents" folder, which provides a brief synopsis of each letter contained in the collection. It appears dates were attributed to many of the letters after this folder had been created. Therefore, the order is not truly chronological.