Today is National Women Physicians Day, in observance of the 196th anniversary of Elizabeth Blackwell's birth. The British-born Dr. Blackwell is remembered as the first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States as well as the first woman on the United Kingdom Medical Register. What you may not know is that, prior to undertaking her medical training, Dr. Blackwell briefly worked as a schoolteacher in Kentucky!
Elizabeth Blackwell was born in a large, nurturing family in Bristol, Gloucestershire, England in 1821; her father, Samuel, was a sugar refiner. Following civil unrest in Bristol, Samuel moved the family first to New York City and later to Cincinnati. As the family fell on hard financial times, Elizabeth accepted a teaching position in Henderson, Kentucky, at a salary of $400/year. Ultimately, Elizabeth's time in the Bluegrass State was unsatisfactory. She found herself suited neither for the town nor the profession, and returned to Cincinnati after a few months, resolving to find a more fulfilling line of work. She worked as a music teacher in North Carolina, saving money for her goal of pursuing a medical education, ultimately enrolling at Geneva Medical College in upstate New York. The degree of medical doctor was conferred upon Dr. Blackwell in January 1849.
While Dr. Blackwell is widely known as the first woman to attain a formal medical degree in the United States, the first woman who was recognized as a physician in Kentucky actually predates the Commonwealth's statehood. Frances Jane Coomes and her husband William accompanied Dr. George Hartt to Fort Harrod in the 1770s. Mrs. Coomes served an apprenticeship under Dr. Hartt, and also is known as Kentucky's first schoolteacher. According to Dr. John A Ouchterlony, in his 1880 book Pioneer Medical Men and Times in Kentucky,
The husband was brave and intrepid; took part in many fights with the Indians, and had numerous adventures and hair breadth escapes. He reached a high age, and was much respected and honored; but it is especially his wife who claims attention in connection with pioneer Medicine in Kentucky. She was a woman of remarkably vigorous intellect, great originality and fertility of resource, and of strong and noble character. She certainly was the first female who ever practiced Medicine in Kentucky and according to some she was the first of her sex to exercise the beneficent functions of the healing arts of our State. She was physician, surgeon, and obstetrician, and her fame and practice extended far and wide, even attracting patients from remote settlements and not only in Kentucky, but in adjoining States.
Here's to Mrs. Coomes, Dr. Blackwell, and all of the other great female physicians for whom Kentucky was part of the story!