This Week's Story

Elizabeth Blackwell fights loss of her eye and opens her medical office.

This Week’s Story relives American history and the Bible through brief inspiring stories presented on mp3 audio recordings and text for reading.

You cannot be a doctor!
part three

“Sh-sh, little one.” Elizabeth gently syringed his red eyelid. He whimpered and jerked his head. Water shot from his eye into hers. Soon her left eye felt itchy. It swelled and by morning pus held her lids shut. She was infected with the same disease her infant patient had.

Treatment began. Leeches were put on her temples. Cold cloths, opium, and ointment from the deadly nightshade plant were put on her forehead. Nothing but broth was fed to her. Every hour her eye was lightly flushed with water. She was conscious, but in so much pain that she could not take in what was happening around her. Three weeks passed. Then her right eye opened, but the left eye, whether open or shut, was in darkness. She felt fear, tears, even hope. I am Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, but can I still become a surgeon?

She went to Prussia, took water cures, and walked often in the mountains. Her right eye became irritated and inflamed. An eye specialist told her, “To keep your right eye from getting infected, your left eye must be removed.”

She despaired, “I will be given a glass eye, a piece of glass with no expression. Will I be ugly? Should I think of myself not as a woman, but as a doctor, a good doctor? Will people trust me—a doctor with one eye?”

Despite her anxiety, Elizabeth had the operation removing her eye. What should she do next? She was invited to study at the respected Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, England. There she became absorbed in studies. Though at first, she wanted to hide from people, she began to realize, I don’t look much different from before my operation.

She made friends with the doctors at the hospital. Often their wives looked at her as though she were peculiar. They could not understand how a woman could have the right to become a doctor. She met women who were supporters of women’s rights. They admired her intelligence and determination in becoming the first female medical doctor in England and the United States. They asked her to parties, concerts, exhibitions, lectures, and the theater. It was a whirl of social activities and happy time.

Soon Elizabeth turned to her passion to be a practicing doctor. She thought, I cannot be a surgeon, but I can help bring better education for women. We won’t compete with men; we will contribute. Now women are shut out from many careers. Medical training, especially good training, should be available to them.

She had worked with doctors who used dirty medical procedures. The importance of sanitation and hygiene needed to be understood. She was determined to provide better training than what she had often seen and received! Medical students should not only listen to lectures and read books; they needed to be in hospitals observing the diseases they read about and have opportunities to participate in treatment. Students should be allowed to dissect cadavers.

She left England and in New York City looked for a place to begin her medical practice. Whenever she introduced herself as Dr. Blackwell, she was rejected. Unexpectedly, she found and rented several rooms on one floor of a house. She hung a sign outside and put an announcement into the New York Tribune. “Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell has opened an office and is ready for patients.” No patient came.

Soon you can listen to part four of “You cannot be a doctor!”

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