Elizabeth Blackwell: the power of applied education

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Elizabeth Blackwell - Brilliant Thinkers

Born in 1821, Elizabeth Blackwell did not intend to become a physician. In her book Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women, she shared that “the very thought of dwelling on the physical structure of the body and its various ailments filled me with disgust.”

But the course of her life changed when a close family friend became terminally ill. Her friend shared that she believed she would not have suffered as much if her doctor had been a woman instead of a man. This experience inspired Blackwell to become a physician, though most medical schools were not open to women at the time.

Blackwell overcame all the challenges she faced to become the first woman to qualify as a doctor in the United States, be included in the British General Medical Council’s medical register, and publish in a medical journal in the US. Blackwell also opened her own clinic and wrote numerous books about women in medicine. Let’s explore Blackwell’s thinking strategies and how we can apply them to the way we navigate our work and life.

This article is part of the Brilliant Thinkers series, which explores the thought processes, working habits, and decision-making principles applied by intellectuals who profoundly impacted the world with their discoveries and the way they challenged the status quo.

Elizabeth Blackwell’s thinking strategies

What made Elizabeth Blackwell’s mind remarkable was her ability to get off the beaten path, her efforts to invest in both self-education and traditional education, and her willingness to create learning opportunities for others, thus building a virtuous intellectual circle. Here are three principles she followed throughout her life.

1. Having the courage to be the first. Blackwell’s biggest challenge was getting to medical school in the first place. Every medical school she applied to rejected her because they did not accept female students. The only school that accepted her was Geneva Medical College in New York. However, even this success was mired in sexism; school administrators allowed the male students to vote on her admission, and the majority voted “yes” as a joke.

Ultimately, the joke was on them. Blackwell’s commitment and talents ultimately earned the respect of her peers and professors by the time she graduated, becoming the first woman in America to do so. When she had difficulty finding patients and jobs at local hospitals because she was a woman, she opened a clinic with her sister instead. It takes bravery to create your own path to success, but Blackwell did this every single day of her career.

2. Investing in your education. Blackwell understood the importance of investing time and money into her education. To save for medical school, she taught music to children at a school in North Carolina. The school’s leader was a former doctor who knew about Blackwell’s interest in becoming a physician. So, when she was not teaching, Blackwell prepared for med school using her doctor’s old medical textbooks. She ultimately saved $3,000 from her teaching job to pay for her education.

3. Creating opportunities for others. Learning from her experiences as a woman in medicine, Blackwell ensured that other women did not have to go through the same challenges. When she and her sister opened their clinic, their goals were two-fold: care for poor women in the community and provide working opportunities for women doctors. Blackwell was also a consistent advocate for women in medicine, writing several books on the topic and continuing her advocacy even after retiring. 

How to think like Elizabeth Blackwell

A great way to emulate Elizabeth Blackwell is by carving your own path, even when it is not obvious and even more when it’s not well traveled. Imagine if Blackwell allowed the men in her field to shake her confidence. Elizabeth knew that people’s unfounded opinions should never stop you from achieving your goals. The only person who knows everything that you are capable of is you. 

Another important strategy is to focus on your growth. Blackwell invested in becoming a medical pioneer. How can you use your time and other resources to further your professional or personal development? Perhaps now is the time to take that online training or sign up for that class you have been thinking about for six months. As Blackwell shows us, investing in yourself can not only benefit you, but also the people in your community.

Finally, make sure to open doors for others. Blackwell carved a path that made it easier for women to enter the medical field. How can you help others get on the same career path? There are many ways to do this, from hiring interns to joining a professional association to connecting with local schools to work with students. Consider how other people have opened doors for you and how you can pay it forward today. 

Elizabeth Blackwell was a courageous woman and a pioneer in the medical community. She defied expectations to become a woman of firsts in her field. She also paid it forward to the next generation of women in medicine, helping them avoid and overcome obstacles she faced in her career. To follow Blackwell’s path, we should practice trusting our abilities, invest in our growth, and consider what we can do to welcome the next generation into our fields.

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