Artifact of Hobart College's most renowned alumna preserved in The National Museum of American History
(Aug. 3, 2004) GENEVA, N.Y.–Near the end of her life Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to earn a medical degree, returned to her native England and continued to write about and discuss medical and social issues. Hobart College's most-esteemed alumna filed much of her written works in a nine-tier wooden bookshelf that she marked with paper tags cataloging her material.
That 19th-century bookshelf found its way across the Atlantic and, after passing through several hands, was recently accepted by the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, in Washington, D.C.
Ironically, the medical historian who acquired the bookshelf for the museum is Judy Chelnick, a 1976 William Smith graduate who was well aware of Dr. Blackwell and the historical significance of the piece. Dr. Blackwell brought international attention to Geneva Medical College, Hobart College's precursor institution, on Jan. 23, 1849, when she graduated first in her class and became the first woman Doctor of Medicine. The now Hobart and William Smith Colleges continue to celebrate her legacy.
“Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell's pursuit of a medical degree was intricately linked to all of the subjects that appear on the shelves of the bookcase,” says Chelnick of the labels–still intact–that Blackwell affixed to the piece. The subjects included medicine, woman's question, morality, religious questions, therapeutics and correspondence.
“We have doctors' bags in the collection but these little black bags represent the profession, they do not convey Dr. Blackwell's lifelong work nor her influence on generations of women who aspired to become physicians,” says Chelnick.
This important piece of history, donated by Dr. Leah Dickstein of Louisville, Ky., will require extensive restoration. The path that brought it to the Smithsonian is interesting. Research found that after Dr. Blackwell's death, her adopted daughter Kitty Berry had the bookcase shipped to Massachusetts from Hastings, England, and gifted it to the Atwood family. Mary Elizabeth Hager Atwood was raised by Dr. Blackwell's sister-in-law. Mary Elizabeth's son, Robert Atwood, sold the bookcase to the Unitarian Universalist Women's Heritage Society, which later sold it to Dr. Dickstein.
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Read the article, Smithsonian gets Blackwell’s shelf: HWS grad works at the museum run on August 4 in the Finger Lakes Times.