With an equal mix of English, Women’s Studies and Health Professions, Assistant Professor of English Sarah Russo put a locally historical spin on one of her courses this academic year.
In ENG 213, “Literature and Medicine: Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Women Healers,” Russo and her class took an in depth look at the relationship between literature and medicine and the ways in which these seemingly separate fields intersect. Drawing on fiction, biography, autobiography, journalism and criticism, the course focuses specifically on the ways in which the texts explore, and even create, the story of women’s health movements and women in medical professions.
To link the many facets of the course, students used resources in Geneva, such as the Geneva Historical Society, to examine valuable research information on Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman doctor and a graduate of Geneva Medical College, now the site of Hobart and William Smith.
“The course explored women as healers in diverse cultural contexts,” says Russo, “and Blackwell is the only healer we studied this semester who entered medical school, earned her degree and practiced as a licensed physician. The other women healers, from midwives to curanderas, nurses to conjure doctors, provided the context within which to situate Blackwell as one type of healer. Studying Blackwell at the Geneva Historical Society Archives has given us an opportunity to examine multiple and sometimes contradictory definitions of Blackwell and her achievement through the decades since she graduated. “
Third of the nine children of Samuel Blackwell, a sugar refiner of Bristol, England, Blackwell moved with the family to Cincinnati in 1832, when she was 11. She selected medicine as her career in the face of almost universal certainty that being a physician was neither an appropriate career for a woman nor even an attainable one. She was rejected by 29 medical schools before she was admitted to Geneva Medical College in 1847. The faculty, largely opposed to her application for admission, submitted the question to the student body and pledged to abide by their decision.
Two years after being accepted, Blackwell graduated at the head of her class. A contemporary letter describing the exercises says that Blackwell received her diploma from the hands of President Benjamin Hale and said, “Sir, by the help of the Most High, it shall be the effort of my life to shed honor on this diploma.”
And so she did. Blackwell founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children and aided in the creation of its medical college. Upon her return to England, she helped found the National Health Society, was the first woman to be placed on the British Medical Register, and taught at England’s first college of medicine for women. She pioneered in preventive medicine and in the promotion of antisepsis and hygiene and was responsible for the first chair of hygiene in any medical college.
Russo’s class culled all of this information and more for the main research project of the semester, focusing on Blackwell, who graduated from Geneva Medical College 160 years ago this year.
“Comparing Blackwell’s autobiography with later representations of her significance, students compiled a critical and cultural biography of Elizabeth Blackwell and examined how culture shapes our perceptions of women in medicine,” says Russo.
“We all are aware that Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman M.D., and that she earned that distinction right here in Geneva. But who was she? How did she see her achievement and her contribution after graduating? How did others see her, in her time and after? In the process of reading Blackwell’s memoir and sifting through decades of writings about her, students have discovered that Blackwell’s identity and significance changes depending on the time period, speaker, and audience. This project was a hands-on approach to understanding how Blackwell tells us as much about our own beliefs about gender, professionalism, and narrative as she tells us about her wide-reaching achievements.”