Elizabeth Blackwell was born in England in 1821, but spent a good deal of her life in New York. Blackwell's father was a social activist who believed in woman's rights, temperance, and the abolition of slavery. The Blackwells moved from England to New York City in 1832, when Samuel Blackwell's sugar refinery was destroyed in a fire. Once in America, the family struggled to survive. Finally, the family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio in May 1838 and in August Blackwell's father died. At first Blackwell, her mother and sisters established a private school in Cincinnati, and then in Kentucky and the Carolinas from 1845 to 1847. During this time she became involved in reform movements and continued to study medicine privately in the hopes of becoming a physician.
In May 1847 Blackwell moved to Philadelphia with the hope of entering medical school, but was turned down by every school she had applied to. Finally, Geneva College in Geneva, New York, accepted her as a joke when the administration threw the decision to admit her to the students who jokingly agreed. Blackwell was met with hostility when she first arrived, but eventually was accepted by her classmates and went on to graduate first in her class in 1849. Because of her sex she was unable to find employment in New York's dispensaries and hospitals, and so in 1853 she opened a clinic in a poor section of New York City where she treated women and children. After a few years, she was joined by her sister, Emily, who was now a doctor as well. By 1857 their clinic had expanded into a hospital and became the New York Infirmary for Women and Children.
During the Civil War Blackwell helped to form the Woman's Central Relief Association which was instrumental in establishing the United States Sanitary Commission in 1861 which was made up mainly of women. The organization provided food, clothing, medical supplies, and services to the Union army.
After the Civil War, Blackwell established the Woman's Medical College of the New York Infirmary. She served as its first chair of hygiene. However, her stay there was short-lived and she returned to England. During the next thirty years, she published numerous publications on medical diseases and expressed her beliefs that many diseases could be prevented with proper hygiene and public sanitation. She also felt that many illnesses were due to poverty and lack of education. Blackwell was heralded as a pioneer for women in medicine.