Bearing False Witness; Gerrymandering; Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell

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Good morning, it’s Wednesday, January 23, 2019. On this date in 1849, a 27-year-old immigrant got the job done. A native of Bristol, England, this migrant had come to America at age 11 – part of a large family of Quakers. Her name was Elizabeth Blackwell, and 170 years ago today, she was awarded a medical degree at Geneva College in New York. In so doing, she became the first officially recognized female physician in the United States.

I’ll offer a further word on Ms. Blackwell’s life and times in a moment. First I’d point you to our front page, which aggregates, as it does each day, an array of columns and stories spanning the political spectrum. We also offer a complement of original material from RCP’s reporters and contributors:

* * *

BuzzFeed, the Covington Teens and the Harms of False Witness. Steve Cortes weighs in on the press credibility crisis that spiked late last week.

To Fix Our Democracy, First End Gerrymandering. Neal Simon spotlights what he sees as the root of poisonous partisanship on Capitol Hill.

China and the Next Space Race. In RealClearDefense, James Durso describes how the U.S. can stay competitive despite China’s aggressive new push into space.

Protect Privacy Without Destroying Innovation. In RealClearPolicy, Billy Easley II warns against heavy-handed government measures in response to data breaches.

* * *

Elizabeth Blackwell’s father struggled in business -- he was a sugar refiner -- but his views on politics were clear: He was an ardent abolitionist, and a man also sympathetic to women’s rights.

In 1838, however, only six years after he moved his family to America, Samuel Blackwell died, leaving behind a widow stuck in Cincinnati with nine children and her husband’s considerable debts. To help pay the bills, the children went to work. Elizabeth, the third eldest, became a school teacher. Her life took a turn when a female friend who was dying of cancer confided in Elizabeth how much she wished she could have had a female doctor to tend to her.

So this dutiful friend turned her attention to the study of medicine, then an all-male field, receiving private tutorship from independent-minded doctors before applying to medical schools, which were also all-male. Every institution of learning turned her down except Geneva Medical College in upstate New York, and this school didn’t accept her right away.

Apparently, the faculty and administration weren’t necessarily inclined to break tradition, but didn’t want to think of themselves as bigots. Charles Lee, Geneva’s dean, came up with a creative solution. According to the college’s official history, Dean Lee interrupted the anatomy class lecture of a professor named James Webster one October afternoon in 1847 with an interesting announcement.

“Gentlemen, I have a most amazing request to bring to your attention,” he said. “A young lady, Elizabeth Blackwell, has applied for acceptance to our medical school."

This certainly got everyone’s attention, especially when Lee added that the faculty had decided to let the students vote on the question of admittance, with the following proviso: Even one negative vote would result in rejection.

Think of that for a moment. Phrases like “white privlege” and “toxic masculinity” are tossed around promiscuously today, often aimed at young people who actually have little privilege and whose idea of machismo extends to holding a door open for a lady. But in Elizabeth Blackwell’s day, many doors were closed to women, and people of color, in ways that are unfathomable now. A year ago, in fact, female enrollment in U.S. medical schools surpassed male enrollment for the first time.

It was a long time in coming, and every female physician in this country -- and every female patient who finds solace in having a woman as her doctor -- owes a tip of the cap to Elizabeth Blackwell. And not only her. We like our story lines clean and our social pioneers to be superheroes. The keepers of our myths also tend to make those who erected barriers into comic book villains. Occasionally, such portraits are fair, but the flow of history, and of human motivations, is usually more complex.

This was a point made by Politico writer Peter Canellos in a thoughtful essay about the movie “On the Basis of Sex,” a paean to Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Without taking anything away from our heroine, Canellos makes the point that there is another story line at work in her inspiring life’s story -- and it’s one of more contemporary relevance as we engage in partisan warfare over the Supreme Court.

“Social progress depends not only on passionate advocates,” he wrote, “but also on open-minded judges.” 

To be sure, RBG makes for a helluva heroine, but this is not always the case with those who bend history to their wills. Elizabeth Blackwell, for instance, feuded with everyone she ever dealt with -- including her own sisters and Florence Nightingale. A couple of times, she burned so many bridges, she returned to England in frustration. It was there, in the land of her birth, that she died and was buried in 1910. Four years earlier, she sailed to New York and insisted on taking a ride in a new invention: the automobile.

This same intrepid spirit was in evidence the day she presented herself to an upstate New York college as a prospective physician. Forty years after the fact, a student who was in Professor Webster’s class that day related what happened when the school put the issue of admittance to the young men studying to be doctors themselves. This student’s name was Stephen Smith and he was destined to become an accomplished surgeon and renowned hospital administrator.

“We thought it might be fun, and relieve the monotony, to have a girl in our class,” Smith recalled. “Everybody voted ‘aye’ except one wretch, who was pounced on from all quarters until he yelled, ‘Aye! I vote aye!’”

Sometimes that’s how history is made. And after graduating (first in her class) two years later, Blackwell opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. Eventually, after repatriating to England, she opened a medical facility there as well. She left behind a trail that has been successfully followed by countless other women physicians, including her own younger sister Emily; that is to say, Dr. Emily Blackwell.

For its part, Geneva College changed its name to Hobart College, later merging with the William Smith College for Women. In 1949, Hobart and William Smith Colleges marked the centennial of Elizabeth Blackwell’s graduation by presenting an award in her name to 12 internationally acclaimed female physicians. Beginning in 1958, it has bestowed an award on a woman “whose life exemplifies outstanding service to humanity.” 

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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