Elizabeth Blackwell portrait

On Feb. 3, her birthday, Hobart and William Smith Colleges will celebrate the life of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree. She attained the degree at Geneva College, the forerunner to Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

GENEVA — Hobart and William Smith Colleges are hosting a birthday party for Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a doctor of medicine degree.

The celebration will take place during the week of Blackwell’s 200th birthday in February.

Blackwell’s alma mater, Geneva Medical College, was a department of Geneva College, later renamed Hobart College and now Hobart and William Smith.

Blackwell is renowned worldwide for her achievement as the first woman doctor and for the precedent she set, both in modern medicine and opening the field of medicine to women.

On her birthday, Wednesday, Feb. 3, HWS will host a virtual conversation with the author of a new dual biography of Blackwell and her sister, Emily, who earned her medical degree shortly after Elizabeth. Beginning at noon via Zoom, historian and author Janice P. Nimura will join the HWS community to discuss her book, “The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women and Women to Medicine,” which will be published by W.W. Norton in January. The discussion will be facilitated by Betty Bayer, professor of women’s studies at HWS.

In the book, which has earned starred pre-publication reviews, Nimura follows the journey of the two sisters, “English immigrants who, in quick succession, became the first and third women, respectively, in the U.S. to earn medical degrees — and who, in 1857, founded the very first hospital staffed by women, the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children,” as the publisher notes.

Nimura — an independent historian whose last book, “Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back,” was a New York Times Notable book of 2015 — is the winner of a 2017 National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar award. She lives in New York City.

Throughout Blackwell’s birthday, HWS will celebrate the legacy of the legendary alumna with engaging programming, including a walking tour of her commute to campus from her apartment on South Main Street and a talk by Ted Aub, professor of art and architecture, who crafted the bronze statue of Blackwell that sits on the southwest corner of the Hobart Quad.

In the Victorian Age, middle-class women did not receive formal educations; they could not own property or vote. Despite these obstacles, the aspiring doctor studied privately with independent physicians, an education which culminated when she graduated from Geneva Medical College on Jan. 23, 1849, at the head of her class. A contemporaneous letter, describing the exercises, says that Blackwell received her diploma from the hands of President Benjamin Hale and said, “Sir, by the help of the Most High, it shall be the effort of my life to shed honor on this diploma.”

Blackwell’s career in medicine was difficult, as she fought to find employment in the male-dominated profession of medicine, HWS noted. Hospitals extended no opportunities for Blackwell to set up practice. At the time, it was not customary for professionals to discuss subjects pertaining to the body, illness or diseases in the company of women. Unrestrained by these obstacles, Dr. Blackwell founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children and aided in the creation of its medical college. Upon her return to her homeland England, she helped found the National Health Society, was the first woman to be placed on the British Medical Register, and taught at England’s first college of medicine for women. She pioneered in preventive medicine and in the promotion of antisepsis and hygiene and was responsible for the first chair of hygiene in any medical college.

A street is named for Blackwell in downtown Geneva, as is an apartment complex on Castle and Genesee streets.

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