"History of the New York Infirmary"
from The Silver Bell issued for The Benefit of the New York Infirmary
for Women and Children
By Alice Duer Miller
In 1847, a young girl, Miss Elizabeth Blackwell, applied for permission to enter the medical school of Hobart College. Somewhat to her surprise she found her request agreed to by the student body. She did not inquire what lay behind this unusual liberality of mind, but "with a sigh of relief and an inspiration of gratitude," prepared for her journey to Geneva, New York.
Time has explained the cordiality of that group of medical students. Some of them thought the application a hoax practiced on them by a neighboring college. Most of them were moved by that desire to embarrass the faculty which has not died out of the student heart today. A contemporary…a member of the class…has left us an account of the incident. He describes the class of 150 young men as "rude, boisterous and riotous beyond comparison." Into this class the Dean came one day with a letter from a physician in Philadelphia asking the faculty to admit a young lady. The Dean explained that the faculty had decided to leave the decision to the students, and …. We may imagine him pausing to make his point clear …. If one student voted no, a negative reply would be returned.
The whole affair assumed the most ludicrous aspect for the class, and the announcement was received with the most uproarious demonstrations of favor. A meeting was called for the evening, which was attended by every member. The resolution approving the admission of the young lady was sustained by the most extravagant speeches, which were enthusiastically cheered. The vote was finally taken with what seemed to be one unanimous yell "Yea". When the negative vote was called, a single voice was heard uttering a timid "No". A general rush was made to the corner which emitted the voice, and the recalcitrant member was only too glad to acknowledge his error and record his vote in the affirmative.
Thus accepted, Miss Blackwell arrived and took her place calmly. Fortunately she was a calm young woman, for she had her troubles. A doctor’s wife at the boarding house table pointedly avoided any contact with her. Ladies stopped to stare at her in the street as if she were "a curious wild animal." She was not allowed to attend an operation in the course, described in her diary as "delicate." She records that this prohibition "annoyed" her. Little folded notes dropped on her arms in lecture rooms. She shook them off. It must be said, however, that few of her troubles seemed to come from the rude, boisterous and riotous young men. She reports their conduct as admirable … that of true Christian gentlemen.
In her summer vacation she took a position, not without entreaty at the Blockley Almshouse in Pennsylvania, where a violent epidemic of typhus excited her interest and she chose this dark and dangerous disease as the subject of her thesis. The head doctor was kind, but the young interns walked out of every ward as she entered, taking with them the written record of diagnosis and treatment from the bed of each patient….a form of spite more destructive to their patients than to their competitor.
The next year she received her medical degree from Hobart. She actually walked up to the platform before all eyes and said: "Sir, I thank you. It shall be the effort of my life, with the help of the Most High, to shed honor on this diploma." She was touched and surprised that as she came down the graduates made room for her and insisted on her sitting among them. How much more surprised would she have been, could she have known at that instant that some day her portrait would be hanging in foreign medical schools, that Hobart would request the honor of calling its first dormitory for women after her, and that the Woman’s Medical Society of Rochester would change its name to the Blackwell Medical School.
We have some amusing contemporary comment. She was described in a medical paper as a pretty little specimen of the feminine gender. Another told how she came into class "with composure, took off her bonnet and put it under the seat, displaying a fine phrenology." "The Baltimore Sun" observed that she should confine her practice to diseases of the heart. Even "Punch" noticed the event and wrote her a poem too long to quote in full:
They talk about the gentler sex:
Mankind in sickness tending
And o’er the patient couch their necks
But what avails solicitude
In fever or in phthistic
If lovely woman’s not imbued
With one idea of physic?
Young ladies all of every clime,
Especially of Britain,
Who wholly occupy your time
In novels or in knitting
Whose highest skill is but to play
Sing, dance or French to clack well,
Reflect on the example, pray,
Of excellent Miss Blackwell.
A few years later, her sister, Emily, followed in her footsteps. Both women studies abroad for some years, and on their return decided with the help of a third woman, Dr. Maria Zackrewska, to establish a hospital where women could be trained in the practical work of their science. They met with great discouragements. They were told that no one would rent a house for such a purpose, that female doctors were looked on with such suspicion that the police would interfere, that if an accident should happen the trustees would be held criminally responsible, and that it would be utterly impossible to raise one cent of money.
Undiscouraged they took a house in Bleecker Street and opened two tiny wards. Instantly the hospital was overcrowded; instantly it began its long career of education and service.
The New York Infirmary for Women and Children has always been listed by the College of Physicians and Surgeons, and by the American Medical Association as a grade "A" hospital. It has an excellent site for a hospital, on a sunny square in a crowded east side district. It is entirely staffed by women … 45 of the most prominent women physicians in New York …. With a consulting board of both sexes. Its income in 1927 was $170,000 of which only about ten per cent was gift contributions. It treated that year 32,000 cases in the dispensary, and over 2,500 in the hospital, of which one half were entirely free patients.
The first annual report of the Infirmary asked the sum of $5,000 to "enlarge its operations and put it on a permanent basis". Today its trustees, with less modesty and more confidence, are trying to raise more than ten times that amount for yearly expenses ($70,000) and three hundred times that amount for a building fund.