New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children Opens Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Founded by Elizabeth Blackwell to serve the needs of women and children, the New York Infirmary was an enduring success that gave rise to the first medical school for women and made a major contribution to advancing opportunities for women in the medical professions.

Summary of Event

During the early nineteenth century, six children were born into the extraordinary family of Hannah and Samuel Blackwell, in which both sexes were given equal, rigorous educations and male family members were astonished by the treatment of women outside their home. Two of the four Blackwell sisters, Elizabeth and Emily, paved the way for women in medicine in the United States and Europe. Elizabeth became the first woman in the United States to earn a diploma from a medical college, and Emily followed her example five years later. New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children Blackwell, Elizabeth Education;women’s[women] Women;medical education Blackwell, Elizabeth Medicine;and women[Women] [kw]New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children Opens (May 12, 1857) [kw]Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children Opens, New York (May 12, 1857) [kw]Indigent Women and Children Opens, New York Infirmary for (May 12, 1857) [kw]Women and Children Opens, New York Infirmary for Indigent (May 12, 1857) [kw]Children Opens, New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and (May 12, 1857) [kw]Opens, New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children (May 12, 1857) New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children Blackwell, Elizabeth Education;women’s[women] Women;medical education Blackwell, Elizabeth Medicine;and women[Women] [g]United States;May 12, 1857: New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children Opens[3180] [c]Health and medicine;May 12, 1857: New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children Opens[3180] [c]Organizations and institutions;May 12, 1857: New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children Opens[3180] [c]Social issues and reform;May 12, 1857: New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children Opens[3180] [c]Women’s issues;May 12, 1857: New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children Opens[3180] Blackwell, Kitty Barry Blackwell, Emily Zakrzewska, Marie E.

At a time when women generally were confined to the home by society, the Blackwell sisters quietly demanded the same rights to which they had always been entitled in their family. Their father, a minister of the Dissenters congregation, was well known for his stand on issues of basic human rights, including slavery and women’s rights. He took his family from England to the United States in 1832 after his sugar refinery business was lost in a fire. His sons, Henry and Samuel, both married famous suffragists. Henry wed Lucy Stone Stone, Lucy [p]Stone, Lucy;marriage of and signed an agreement allowing her to retain her maiden name; Samuel married Antoinette Brown Brown, Antoinette , an ordained minister. Both brothers were also instrumental in helping their sisters financially with their educations and in obtaining support from public figures for their sisters’ infirmary and other social and educational projects serving women and children.

After graduating from Geneva College Medical School in New York (now Hobart and William Smith Colleges) in January, 1849, Elizabeth could not find a graduate position in any teaching hospital in the United States. Conditioned to the hardships of fighting for her cause by having had to apply to twenty-nine colleges before Geneva had admitted her, she began a fierce campaign to receive the further medical training she needed. However, although she had excellent references from professors and personal friends who were physicians, the public was reluctant to accept a woman in what was traditionally a male profession.

Elizabeth traveled to England and then to France, but was not accepted as a physician in either country. Still unwilling to accept defeat, she entered the famous Paris women’s hospital, La Maternité, as a nurse in training. Her experiences there, coupled with her college summer intern experience at the Blockley Almshouse in Philadelphia Philadelphia;Blockley Almshouse , made her keenly aware of the lack of attention to proper hygiene in the medical professions. Preventive health measures and the importance of good physical hygiene and sanitation practices became a permanent part of the focus of her medical practice. She also believed that a new dimension would be added to medical practice if women had access to treatment by qualified and caring women physicians.

Marie Elizabeth Zakrzewska.

(Courtesy of Harvard University Library)

In 1851, Elizabeth returned to New York eager to begin her medical career. Once again, she encountered obstacles, as she could not find a landlord who would allow her to hang her professional sign on his building. She also had difficulty convincing patients that she was as capable as any male doctor. Although her finances were limited, she bought a house at 79 East 15th Street on Tompkins Square in New York City in order to have a professional office. From her home, she began offering part-time free services to women and children of the tenement slums of New York’s lower East Side. Meanwhile, financial hardships and lack of professional recognition became a way of life as she constantly faced the gender prejudices of the public. In 1854, her loneliness led her to adopt a seven-year-old orphan, Katherine Barry Blackwell, Kitty Barry , who remained her companion for life and provided an important source of personal and professional support.

Even after depleting her own funds and those offered by her loyal family, Elizabeth refused to relinquish her goals. She eventually established a good reputation among her patients, and word spread that the sympathetic and determined young woman was an excellent physician. During her first year, she treated more than two hundred patients. During that time, she also prepared and gave a series of lectures on the principles of good hygiene and thereby attracted the support of a group of Quakers, who sponsored bazaars and gift fairs to raise money for her work.

The desperate need of the poor for medical care eventually prompted Blackwell to plan a larger dispensary. She solicited the help of her sister Emily Blackwell, Emily , who by then had graduated from Western Reserve Medical School in Cleveland. Dr. Marie Zakrzewska, Zakrzewska, Marie E. another young woman whom Elizabeth had encouraged during her training, had also graduated from Western Reserve, and she agreed to come and help as well.

On May 12, 1857, the three women doctors opened the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, a hospital in which women were cared for completely by women, at 64 Bleeker Street. The three doctors were assisted by the group of Quaker supporters and other women working to raise funds, important New Yorkers such as Horace Greeley Greeley, Horace [p]Greeley, Horace;and New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children[New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children] of the New York Tribune New York Tribune , and reputable doctors who lent their names. The opening address was given by Dr. Henry Ward Beecher Beecher, Henry Ward [p]Beecher, Henry Ward;New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children[New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children] , a noted Brooklyn preacher and the brother of novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe. Emily Blackwell, Emily , a skilled surgeon and administrator, was an important force in the daily running of the hospital and was able to carry on whenever necessary in Elizabeth’s absences. During the infirmary’s second year, the New York State legislature granted it official recognition as well as financial support of one thousand dollars per year.

Elizabeth’s plans for the infirmary did not end with treating patients. She had wanted for years to improve and intensify medical training for women, both as nurses and as doctors. Although even many of her supporters thought her overly ambitious, she opened a nursing school in conjunction with the infirmary in 1858. On April 13, 1864, New York State;women’s medical school[Womens medical school] the state legislature passed an enabling act for a woman’s medical school. In 1866, Elizabeth realized her dream of a full medical college as she opened the doors to fifteen students.

The only facility of its kind at which the needs of women were met by women, the infirmary enjoyed mounting success. However, it also endured constant growing pains. By 1860, it obtained a new building on Second Avenue and 8th Street. The hospital then had an infirmary and a dispensary, in which clinical cases were treated on an outpatient basis. A visiting health nurse went to homes to teach rules of sanitation and hygiene to advance preventive medicine, an innovation in medical practice of the nineteenth century. Meanwhile, the medical college flourished. In 1874, a mansion at 5 Livingston Place was converted into a hospital in which 7,549 patients were treated during the next year. In 1889, a nearby site was purchased for a six-story building for the college.

Significance

In 1898, Cornell University Medical College agreed to accept women on equal terms with men. Elizabeth Blackwell concluded that the need for her separate school was diminished and arranged to transfer her students to Cornell. However, the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children continued as a hospital. The infirmary has remained an important institution in New York, not only for its service to its patients but also for what it represents in the pioneering of new territory for women in medical careers and the advancement of the field of public health and preventive medicine in general.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baker, Rachel. The First Woman Doctor: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell, M.D. New York: Julian Messner, 1944. Good general biography of Blackwell for young readers. Includes a detailed account of the New York infirmary’s history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blackwell, Elizabeth. Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women. Reprint. Amherst, N.Y.: Humanity Books, 2004. Originally published in 1895, this work contains autobiographical sketches that reveal the struggle that Blackwell went through to complete her medical training.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Flexnor, Eleanor. “The Intellectual Progress of Women, 1860-1875.” In Century of Struggle: The Women’s Rights Movement in the United States. Rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1975. Discusses the Blackwell sisters’ founding of the infirmary and its history in the context of the women’s movement of the nineteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goldstein, Linda Lehmann. “Without Compromising in Any Particular: The Success of Medical Coeducation in Cleveland, 1850-1856.” Caduceus 10, no. 2 (Autumn, 1994): 101-115. Contains information about Zakrzewska’s experience as one of the earliest women medical students.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morantz-Sanchez, Regina. Sympathy and Science: Women Physicians in American Medicine. Rev. ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. Originally published in 1985, this book offers a history of women physicians in the United States from colonial times through the twentieth century and has a chapter that focuses on Elizabeth Blackwell. The new edition includes a new preface that surveys recent scholarship on women in medicine.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">More, Ellen S. Restoring the Balance: Women Physicians and the Profession of Medicine, 1850-1995. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. History of women in medicine during the late nineteenth century that devotes considerable space to Elizabeth Blackwell.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tuchman, Arleen Marcia. “’Only in a Republic Can It Be Proved That Science Has No Sex’: Marie Elizabeth Zakrzewska (1829-1902) and the Multiple Meanings of Science in the Nineteenth-Century United States.” Journal of Women’s History 11, 1 (Spring, 1999): 121-142. Brief scholarly examination of Zakrzewska’s impact on political reform.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilson, Dorothy Clarke. Lone Woman: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell, the First Woman Doctor. Boston: Little, Brown, 1970. Good source of information about the New York infirmary with details on the personalities involved.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zakrzewska, Marie Elizabeth. A Woman’s Quest: The Life of Marie E. Zakrzewska, M.D. Edited by Agnes C. Vietor. 1924. New York: D. Appleton, Arno, 1972. Compelling autobiography by the German American medical pioneer who promoted the rights of women in the American medical professions.

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