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Admitted to Medical School as a Joke

February 02, 2022
by Cecelia Smith

Nearly one hundred and seventy-five years ago, the Dean of Geneva Medical School presented his class of one hundred and fifty men with a vote: “Do we or don’t we accept Elizabeth Blackwell to medical school?” Dismissing the proposal as a silly joke, all 150 men approved Elizabeth’s application “Her!? A schoolteacher!?! Dares to be a doctor!?!” She was bound to fail, they thought.

But Elizabeth showed up anyway.

According to history books, it wasn’t uncommon for professors to preclude Elizabeth from the lecture hall — the topic of reproductive anatomy, in particular, “was too unrefined for a woman’s delicate sensibilities.”

But Elizabeth showed up anyway.

In the village, the daughter of a well-known Congregationalist, Elizabeth was sneered upon by locals for abandoning her womanly duties to the home. But Elizabeth kept showing up to class, and, in 1849, became the first woman to graduate medical school in America.

At graduation, the Dean of the Medical School — the same man who hadn’t the boldness to accept a woman into the class without his peers’ approval — bowed at Elizabeth’s feet.

Dr. Blackwell went on to organize the National Health Society and founded the London School of Medicine for Women. In 1875, she was appointed professor of gynecology and continued to practice until her retirement age of eighty-six years young.

Dr. Blackwell began a dialogue around equal opportunity in the sciences that continues to this day. Since 2016, every February 3rd (Elizabeth's birthday), we celebrate National Women Physicians Day in her honor. However, Elizabeth’s legacy is much more than a story about gendered health care, glass ceilings, and glass cliffs ...

In fact, I’d venture to say National Women’s Physicians Day has little to do with gender, and everything to do with possibility — of the awesome things that can happen when we acknowledge our biases, get uncomfortable, flip the script, and unleash fearless, childlike curiosity into the world. (After all, it is Elizabeth’s birthday that we celebrate, not the day she received her diploma ...)

So today, National Women Physicians Day, I dare you to channel your inner Elizabeth, challenge the norms, and try something radical. Celebrate the times you've made a bold decision, shown up, and beat the odds. Have cake for breakfast (really!*). Suture with the opposite hand. Apply for that grant your inner critic says you couldn’t possibly get. Do the "silly" thing, dare to show up, and see who gets the last laugh ...

Elizabeth certainly did.

Submitted by Stevi Kramer on February 03, 2022