Elizabeth was born on February 3, 1821, in Bristol, England, to Samuel Blackwell, who was a sugar refiner, and his wife Hannah (Lane) Blackwell.
In 1832, the family emigrated from Bristol, England to New York because Samuel Blackwell had lost their most profitable sugar refinery to a fire.
A few years after the family moved to New York, the family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. When Blackwell was 17 her father passed away, leaving the family with very little money.
Blackwell converted to Episcopalianism, probably due to her sister Anna's influence, in December 1838, becoming an active member of St. Paul's Episcopal Church.
In 1844, with the help of her sister Anna, Blackwell procured a teaching job that paid $1,000 per year in Henderson, Kentucky. Although she was pleased with her class, she found the accommodations and schoolhouse lacking. What disturbed her most was that this was her first real encounter with the realities of slavery. "Kind as the people were to me personally, the sense of justice was continually outraged; and at the end of the first term of engagement I resigned the situation." She returned to Cincinnati only half a year later, resolved to find a more stimulating way to spend her life.
Once again, through her sister Anna, Blackwell procured a job, this time teaching music at an academy in Asheville, North Carolina, with the goal of saving up the $3,000 necessary for her medical school expenses. In Asheville, Blackwell lodged with the respected Reverend John Dickson, who happened to have been a physician before he became a clergyman. Dickson approved of Blackwell's career aspirations and allowed her to use the medical books in his library to study. During this time, Blackwell soothed her own doubts about her choice and her loneliness with deep religious contemplation. She also renewed her antislavery interests, starting a slave Sunday school that was ultimately unsuccessful.
Dickson's school closed down soon after, and Blackwell moved to the residence of Reverend Dickson's brother, Samuel Henry Dickson, a prominent Charleston physician. She started teaching in 1846 at a boarding school in Charleston run by a Mrs. Du Pré. With the help of Reverend Dickson's brother, Blackwell inquired into the possibility of medical study via letters, with no favorable responses.
In 1847, Blackwell left Charleston for Philadelphia and New York, with the aim of personally investigating the opportunities for medical study. Blackwell's greatest wish was to be accepted into one of the Philadelphia medical schools.
My mind is fully made up. I have not the slightest hesitation on the subject; the thorough study of medicine, I am quite resolved to go through with. The horrors and disgusts I have no doubt of vanquishing. I have overcome stronger distastes than any that now remain, and feel fully equal to the contest. As to the opinion of people, I don't care one straw personally; though I take so much pains, as a matter of policy, to propitiate it, and shall always strive to do so; for I see continually how the highest good is eclipsed by the violent or disagreeable forms which contain it.
In October 1847, Blackwell was accepted as a medical student by Hobart College, then called Geneva Medical College, located in upstate New York.
On January 23, 1849, Blackwell became the first woman to achieve a medical degree in the United States.
In April, 1849, Blackwell made the decision to continue her studies in Europe. She visited a few hospitals in Britain and then headed to Paris.
In June, Blackwell enrolled at La Maternité; a "lying-in" hospital, under the condition that she would be treated as a student midwife, not a physician. She made the acquaintance of Hippolyte Blot, a young resident physician at La Maternité. She gained much medical experience through his mentoring and training.
On 4 November 1849, when Blackwell was treating an infant with ophthalmia neonatorum, she spurted some contaminated solution into her own eye accidentally and contracted the infection. She lost sight in her left eye, causing her to have her eye surgically extracted and thus lost all hope of becoming a surgeon.
After a period of recovery, Blackwell enrolled at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London in 1850. She regularly attended James Paget's lectures. She made a positive impression there, although she did meet some opposition when she tried to observe the wards.
Feeling that the prejudice against women in medicine was not as strong there, Blackwell returned to New York City in 1851 with the hope of establishing her own practice.
Stateside, Blackwell was faced with adversity, but did manage to get some media support from entities such as the New-York Tribune. She had very few patients, a situation she attributed to the stigma of women doctors as abortionists.
In 1852, Blackwell began delivering lectures and published The Laws of Life with Special Reference to the Physical Education of Girls, her first work, a volume about the physical and mental development of girls that concerned itself with the preparation of young women for motherhood.
In 1853, Blackwell established a small dispensary near Tompkins Square. She also took Marie Zakrzewska, a Polish woman pursuing a medical education, under her wing, serving as her preceptor in her pre-medical studies.
In 1856, when Blackwell was establishing the New York Infirmary, she adopted Katherine "Kitty" Barry (1848–1936), an Irish orphan from the House of Refuge on Randall's Island. Diary entries at the time show that she adopted Barry half out of loneliness and a feeling of obligation, and half out of a utilitarian need for domestic help.
In 1857, Dr. Marie Zakrzewska, along with Blackwell and her sister Emily, who had also obtained a medical degree, expanded Blackwell's original dispensary into the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children.
Women served on the board of trustees, on the executive committee and as attending physicians. The institution accepted both in- and outpatients and served as a nurse's training facility. The patient load doubled in the second year.
Blackwell made several trips back to Britain to raise funds and to try to establish a parallel infirmary project there. In 1858, under a clause in the Medical Act of 1858 that recognized doctors with foreign degrees practicing in Britain before 1858, she was able to become the first woman to have her name entered on the General Medical Council's medical register (1 January 1859).
When the American Civil War broke out, the Blackwell sisters aided in nursing efforts. Blackwell sympathized heavily with the North due to her abolitionist roots, and even went so far as to say she would have left the country if the North had compromised on the subject of slavery.
However, Blackwell did meet with some resistance on the part of the male-dominated United States Sanitary Commission (USSC) . The male physicians refused to help with the nurse education plan if it involved the Blackwells. In response to the USSC, Blackwell organized with the Woman's Central Relief Association (WCRA). The WCRA worked against the problem of uncoordinated benevolence, but ultimately was absorbed by the USSC.
Still, the New York Infirmary managed to work with Dorothea Dix to train nurses for the Union effort.
By 1866, nearly 7,000 patients were being treated per year at the New York Infirmary, and Blackwell was needed back in the United States.
The parallel project fell through, but in 1868, a medical college for women adjunct to the infirmary was established. It incorporated Blackwell's innovative ideas about medical education – a four-year training period with much more extensive clinical training than previously required.
At this point, a rift occurred between Emily and Elizabeth Blackwell. Both were extremely headstrong, and a power struggle over the management of the infirmary and medical college ensued.
Elizabeth, feeling slightly alienated by the United States women's medical movement, left for Britain to try to establish medical education for women there. In July 1869, she sailed for Britain.
In 1874, Blackwell established a women's medical school in London with Sophia Jex-Blake, who had been a student at the New York Infirmary years earlier. Blackwell had doubts about Jex-Blake and thought that she was dangerous, belligerent, and tactless.
Nonetheless, Blackwell became deeply involved with the school, and it opened in 1874 as the London School of Medicine for Women, with the primary goal of preparing women for the licensing exam of Apothecaries Hall. Blackwell vehemently opposed the use of vivisections in the laboratory of the school.
After the establishment of the school, Blackwell lost much of her authority to Jex-Blake and was elected as a lecturer in midwifery. She resigned this position in 1877, officially retiring from her medical career.
Blackwell was well connected, both in the United States and in the United Kingdom. She exchanged letters with Lady Byron about women's rights issues, and became very close friends with Florence Nightingale, with whom she discussed opening and running a hospital together.
She remained lifelong friends with Barbara Bodichon, and met Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1883. She was close with her family, and visited her brothers and sisters whenever she could during her travels.
Blackwell, in her later years, was still relatively active. In 1895, she published her autobiography, Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women. It was not very successful, selling fewer than 500 copies.
After this publication, Blackwell slowly relinquished her public reform presence, and spent more time traveling. She visited the United States in 1906 and took her first and last car ride. Blackwell's old age was beginning to limit her activities.
In 1907, while holidaying in Kilmun, Scotland, Blackwell fell down a flight of stairs, and was left almost completely mentally and physically disabled.
On 31 May 1910, she died at her home in Hastings, Sussex, after suffering a stroke that paralyzed half her body. Her ashes were buried in the graveyard of St Munn's Parish Church, Kilmun, and obituaries honouring her appeared in publications such as The Lancet and The British Medical Journal.