Recent acquisitions to the Colleges’ archives of personal letters and family photos of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) provide a rare glimpse into the personal life of HWS’ most celebrated alumna. Among several copies of well-known published works of the first woman in America to receive a medical degree, these new pieces share the story of Dr. Blackwell’s private life through letters discussing her hopes for her adopted daughter Katherine “Kitty” Barry (1848-1936), a note to her mother Hannah Lane Blackwell (1792-1870) in reference to gynecological issues she learned her mother was experiencing from her sister Dr. Emily Blackwell (1826-1910), and her opposition to suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s stance on marriage.
In total, Hobart and William Smith received a collection of 18 letters, two postcards and 14 books and pamphlets written by Blackwell and her family members, as well 15 family photos with at least two featuring the rarely photographed Dr. Blackwell. The pieces, acquired primarily from the estate of her niece Alice Stone Blackwell (1857-1950), are being catalogued and processed by the HWS archives in the Warren Hunting Smith Library with plans for future displays of the collection.
In three letters dated from 1888-1891, Dr. Blackwell asks her niece Alice to be the executor of her will and requests that all of her possessions go to her daughter Kitty, an orphan she adopted in 1856. She also discusses issues surrounding her real estate investments managed by Alice’s brother, her nephew, George Blackwell (1832-1912).
In an 1891 letter to Alice, Dr. Blackwell adds her position on a hotly debated issue of the day, marriage, and her disagreement with suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton who is opposed to the institution of marriage. “Often too I can say a word of warning about that wretched Mrs. Stanton, who does apparently all she can to discredit suffrage by her antagonism to marriage and public morality. Fortunately, her doings in England require no reference to her American antecedents—her attack on Miss Helen Taylor, her defense of Parnell, and her written utterances speak for themselves. But her influence here is mischievous just as far as it goes—which happily is not very far,” writes Dr. Blackwell from Rock House, London.
Another interesting piece in the collection is the writing of Dr. Blackwell in the margin of an 1885 booklet addressing prostitution in London titled “Six Years’ Labour and Sorrow, Being the Fourth Report of the London Committee for Suppressing the Traffic in British Girls for the Purposes of Continental Prostitution.” In the book, Dr. Blackwell circles the sentence “If a woman determine[s] to sell herself body and soul—to commit moral suicide—she must herself bear the responsibility of so doing” and then writes in the margin “A male view. Poverty is more inexorable on women than on men on account of the function of maternity. … it must be recognized that the bribery of women to vice by men through money payments, is the deepest root of woman degradation.”
Much of the recent procurement also includes the recognized professional works authored by Dr. Blackwell (1821-1910) that concern health issues still being addressed today such as equality, disease prevention, hygiene, the impact of climate, soil, food and customs, and the significance of municipal laws. The works (currently online at various institutions) include:
Address Delivered at the Opening of the Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary on 126 Second Avenue on Nov. 3 in 1869.
How to Keep a Household in Health, An Address Delivered Before the Working Woman’s College in London in 1870.
The Influence of Women in the Profession of Medicine, Address Given at the Opening of the Winter Season of the London School of Medicine for Women in 1889.
A pamphlet On the Humane Prevention of Rabies in 1891.
The Religion of Health: A Lecture (not dated).
Blackwell was the first woman to receive a medical degree from an American medical school namely the medical school of Geneva College (Hobart’s precursor) in 1849. (Geneva College was renamed Hobart Free College in 1852 and Hobart College in 1860.)
In the photo above, Dr. Blackwell (seated second row wearing black hat and dress) gathers with her family in Martha’s Vineyard in 1906.
A special thanks to fine arts gallery owner Edward T. Pollack ’55 of Portland, Maine, for his assistance in making these acquisitions possible.