On May 12, 1857,  the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children opened its doors to the sick and needy of Lower Manhattan. The Infirmary, housed inside a red brick building at the corner of Crosby and Bleecker Streets, was the very first hospital to employ an all-female staff. The institution was founded by the first woman to receive a medical degree in America, Elizabeth Blackwell, and her sister Emily, the third woman to receive a medical degree. In her book, The Doctors Blackwell, author Janice P. Nimura explores the lives of these sisters and the mark they left on New York City. In Untapped New York’s upcoming virtual book talk with Janice P. Nimura, you can learn more about the Blackwell legacy and the infirmary they established, in a building that still stands today.

Elizabeth BlackwellElizabeth Blackwell, Courtesy of Library of Congress

The New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children was the first institution of its kind, a hospital for women, run entirely by women. In an address written by Elizabeth Blackwell in 1885, she laid out the mission of the infirmary to “allow women to consult doctors of their own sex, free of charge; to provide the growing number of female medical students with the practical experience denied them by established hospitals; and to train nurses.” To help raise money for the infirmary, the Blackwells hosted a “Ladies’ Fair” where they charged ten cents admission and sold handiwork made by a group of women who had been crafting for weeks. They also gathered funds from progressive supporters.

The noted abolitionist and preacher Henry Ward Beecher gave the keynote address at the infirmary’s opening, which happened to coincide with Florence Nightengale’s 37th birthday. The infirmary was located at 64 Bleecker Street, a four-story Dutch-style home built for James Roosevelt, great-grandfather of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, between 1822 and 1823. James died in 1847 and his wife continued to live in the house until 1857, when it was rented to the Blackwells.

Courtesy of Village Preservation

On the ground floor of the building, the women set up a dispensary in the dining room. There were two inpatient wards on the second floor and the third floor was used as a maternity ward. At the attic level, students, nurses, servants and the resident physician, Dr. Marie Zakrzewska, slept in tiny rooms. The address of the infirmary building, which sits within the NoHo Historic District, has since changed to 58 Bleecker and a restaurant now occupies the ground floor. A plaque on the side of the building, installed by Village Preservation in 2018, marks the significance of the historic site. You can find the location on Village Preservation’s Civil Rights and Social Justice Map.

 

Though the Blackwells had support from progressive organizations and colleagues as well as some positive press, many people were still dubious of the idea of women being doctors and surgeons. In two instances when patients died under the infirmary’s care, there were riots in the street outside. In the end, however, the Blackwells and their hospital became an integral and appreciated part of the community. After a year in operation, the infirmary cared for nearly 1,000 patients, many as outpatients who the doctors visited in their own homes as part of the “Sanitary Visitor” program.

Plaque commemorating the first female run infirmary in NYCCourtesy of Village Preservation

The Blackwells would go on to found their own medical school in 1968, the Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary. More than 350 female physicians graduated from the college’s four-year program over its thirty-one years in operation. The infirmary was relocated to the site of the college at 126 Second Avenue, between East 7th and East 8th Streets. Another site associated with the Blackwells that you can still visit is 80 University Place, Elizabeth’s home and first medical office.

Author Janice P. Nimura with Jane Carey Blackwell Bloomfield, a Blackwell descendant, at the plaque dedication ceremony in 2018. Photograph Courtesy of Yoji Nimura

Discover more about the lives of the Blackwell sisters on Tuesday, January 26th at 6PM ET during a virtual book talk! This live event is organized for Untapped New York Insiders. Not an Insider yet? Become a member today and get two months free with code JOINUS, then membership is just $10/month. A video of the talk will be available afterward in the Video Archive. Already an Insider, register here!
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Next, check out The Keith Haring Mural Inside Brooklyn’s Woodhull Hospital and A Look Inside the Abandoned Saratoga County Homestead Tuberculosis Hospital