Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Elizabeth Blackwell Letters, 1850-1884

Summary Information


A true pioneer in the area of women's rights, Elizabeth Blackwell was the first female physician in the United States. This collection primarily consists of her letters to close, personal friend Barbara Leigh Smith, later Barbara Bodichon. Also included are a few letters to Bodichon from Bessie Parkes, Dr. Emily Blackwell, and Elizabeth Whitehead.

At a Glance

Call No.: MS#0124
Bib ID 4079307 View CLIO record
Creator(s) Blackwell, Elizabeth, 1821-1910
Title Elizabeth Blackwell Letters, 1850-1884
Physical Description 0.42 linear feet (1 document box)
Language(s) English .
Access You will need to make an appointment in advance to use this collection material in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room. You can schedule an appointment once you've submitted your request through your Special Collections Research Account.

This collection has no restrictions.

This collection is located on-site.



The original, roughly chronological order of the letters to Barbara Bodichon, which corresponds to pages 2-38 of the "Contents" folder, has been maintained.



The Elizabeth Blackwell Letters are a collection of personal letters to her friend Barbara Bodichon. They include details of Blackwell's professional activities, her travels, and major events in her life, such as her decision to adopt a child. Many of the letters are congratulatory or condolatory of events in Bodichon's life. Also included in the collection are letters to Bodichon from three other women - Bessie Parkes, Dr. Emily Blackwell, and Elizabeth Whitehead. Parkes was Blackwell's cousin and Bodichon's best friend and introduced the two during Blackwell's study in England in 1850. Emily Blackwell was Elizabeth's younger sister and is mentioned in some of Elizabeth's letters to Bodichon. The four letters from Whitehead are signed simply "Elizabeth;" however, it was determined in 1964 by Elinor Rice Hays, a Blackwell family biographer, that they had not been written by Blackwell. They were therefore attributed to Whitehead based on Hester Burton's biography of Bodichon. A note is attached to each of the four letters.

A few of the letters in this collection mention Florence Nightingale, Bodichon's cousin.

Included at the beginning of this collection is a "Contents" folder, which provides a brief synopsis of each letter contained in the collection. It appears dates were attributed to many of the letters after this folder had been created. Therefore, the order is not truly chronological.

Using the Collection

Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Restrictions on Access

You will need to make an appointment in advance to use this collection material in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room. You can schedule an appointment once you've submitted your request through your Special Collections Research Account.

This collection has no restrictions.

This collection is located on-site.

Terms Governing Use and Reproduction

Single photocopies may be made for research purposes. Permission to publish material from the collection must be requested from the Curator of Manuscripts and University Archivist, Rare Book and Manuscript Library (RBML). The RBML approves permission to publish that which it physically owns; the responsibility to secure copyright permission rests with the patron.

Preferred Citation

Identification of specific item; Date (if known); Elizabeth Blackwell letters; Box and Folder; Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Library.

Selected Related Material at Columbia

Elinor Rice Hays Papers, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University.

Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon Papers, Girton College Archive.


No additons expected

Materials may have been added to the collection since this finding aid was prepared. Contact rbml@columbia.edu for more information.

Alternate Form Available

Microfilm available.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Method of acquisition--Purchase; Date of acquisition--1952.

About the Finding Aid / Processing Information

Columbia University Libraries, Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Processing Information

Cataloged Christina Hilton Fenn 04/05/89.

Papers processed by Christina Manzella.

Finding aid written by Christina Manzella June 2010.

Revision Description

2010-08-05 File created.

2010-08-05 xml document instance created by Catherine N. Carson

2019-05-20 EAD was imported spring 2019 as part of the ArchivesSpace Phase II migration.

Subject Headings

The subject headings listed below are found in this collection. Links below allow searches at Columbia University through the Archival Collections Portal and through CLIO, the catalog for Columbia University Libraries, as well as ArchiveGRID, a catalog that allows users to search the holdings of multiple research libraries and archives.

All links open new windows.


Heading "CUL Archives:"
"CUL Collections:"
"Nat'l / Int'l Archives:"
Blackwell, Elizabeth, 1821-1910 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Blackwell, Emily, 1826-1910 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Bodichon, Barbara Leigh Smith, 1827-1891 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Feminism Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Medicine -- Practice -- England Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Medicine -- Practice -- United States Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Public health Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Sanitation Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Medical care Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Women in medicine Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Women physicians Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID

History / Biographical Note

Biographical / Historical

Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell was born in Bristol, England, in 1821 to a politically outspoken father committed to fairness among his male and female children. In 1832, Samuel Blackwell moved his family to the United States in part for financial reasons but also to participate in the abolitionist movement. Two of his daughters would grow up to continue this fight against slavery and to work towards women's rights, specifically in the area of women in medicine.

After years of struggling to be taken seriously and receiving rejections from 29 schools, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States in 1849. Upon graduating first in her class from New York's Geneva Medical College, she left for Europe, working in clinics in London and Paris. It was during her time in England in 1850 that Blackwell's cousin, Bessie Rayner Parkes, introduced her to fellow women's rights pioneer Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon. Then, while studying midwifery in France, Blackwell contracted purulent opthalmia, costing her sight in one eye and prompting her return to New York in 1851.

Sexism in the United States limited Blackwell's opportunities for employment and for much intellectual exchange with other physicians, so, in 1853, Blackwell opened her own small dispensary. Then in 1857, along with her sister Emily, also a doctor, and their friend Dr. Marie Zakrzewska, she founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. At the onset of the Civil War, Blackwell organized the Women's Central Association of Relief, training nurses for war service. She and her sister also helped to establish the United States Sanitary Commission. After the war, the Blackwell sisters founded the Women's Medical College at their infirmary in New York where Elizabeth served on the faculty until 1869 when she moved back to London.

Blackwell gave up the practice of medicine in the 1870s due to her declining health, but she continued to teach and campaign for increased opportunities for women in the medical field. She died in England in 1910 at the age of 89. In 1949, 100 years after she received her M.D., the American Medical Women's Association created the Elizabeth Blackwell Medal to honor outstanding contributions made by women in the medical field.