By Carol Howard
In spring 1845, Elizabeth Blackwell was a well-read 24-year-old with no income and no interest in marriage. She needed a plan to support herself, but options for educated women were limited. She could take up a post as a schoolteacher, or she could become a nurse, as Florence Nightingale would later do (the two women became friends in London in 1850). Instead, she decided to go to medical school, knowing she would be the first woman to do so. To save money for medical school, she accepted a teaching position at the Reverend Dr. John Dickson’s Female Seminary (later called the Female College) in Asheville, at its early location near the corner of Patton Avenue and Church Street.
Blackwell was English by birth. Her large family immigrated first to New York, then to Cincinnati, where her father hoped to establish a sugar beet farm. The Blackwells were firmly opposed to slavery, yet Mr. Blackwell was a refiner of slave-produced cane sugar. The sugar beet crop scheme was an effort to align his livelihood with his morals, by developing a fair-labor sugar source. Unfortunately, Mr. Blackwell died shortly after the family’s move to Ohio, so the older Blackwell children had to seek employment.
The journey from the family home in Cincinnati to the teaching post in Asheville in June 1845 took eleven days in the family buggy. In her autobiography, Blackwell recalled the long journey: “We forded more than one rapid river” and wound slowly through the Southern Appalachians. The view from Tennessee’s Clinch Mountain, “looking down upon an ocean of mountain ridges spread out endlessly below us,” she wrote, “remains. . . a wonderful panorama in memory.”
During her first night in Asheville, Blackwell had what she described as a spiritual vision that convinced her she had chosen the right path: she would become a doctor. The principal of the school, Dr. Dickson, was then an assistant minister at the nearby First Presbyterian Church, but he was also a medical doctor who allowed her the use of his library. Blackwell found her six months in Asheville “decidedly pleasant.”
She was troubled, though, by the presence of slavery in town and by her misgivings about socializing with slave owners. She undertook to offer Sunday school literacy lessons to enslaved people in Asheville. As doing so was illegal, Dr. Dickson put a stop to the project. Soon thereafter, the Female Seminary closed temporarily, and Blackwell moved on to a teaching post in Charleston with Dr. Dickson’s brother, an eminent physician.
Like his brother in Asheville, Dr. Dickson of Charleston gave Blackwell access to his medical library.
In 1847, Blackwell began applying to medical schools. Because of her gender, she was rejected by all of them. Eventually, she was admitted to the Geneva Medical College in upstate New York, but only because the male students of the college found it a good joke to vote unanimously in favor of her admission. When she enrolled that fall, no one was laughing. She proved an excellent student and in 1849 graduated at the top of her class. Not content to be an exception to the rule that only men could become accredited physicians, Blackwell later opened a training facility in New York for women wishing to pursue a career in medicine. A new era had begun.
Carol Howard is dean of academics at Warren Wilson College. Asheville’s memorial to Elizabeth Blackwell is on Patton Avenue.