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  • Abby Brenker

The History of The Blackwell Family

One of my favorite neighborhoods of New York City is Roosevelt Island, located smack dab between Manhattan and Queens in the East River. I visit Roosevelt Island often. It’s easily accessible by ferry, subway and tram. Some of my favorite historic buildings reside here, including The Blackwell House, Blackwell Light, the ruins of The Renwick Smallpox Hospital and the New York Lunatic Asylum made famous by journalist Nellie Bly who tricked staff into committing her so that she could expose the terrible conditions there.

The Island was previously known as Manning Island, Blackwell Island until 1921, and Welfare Island until 1973 when it was finally renamed to Roosevelt Island. Locals referred to the land as Ward Island for many years because of the number of hospitals and medical facilities housed there. Dating back before colonization the Lenape people called the island Minnehanonck.


In 1666 the island was owned by Captain John Manning, it next was passed to his son-in-law Robert Blackwell. The Blackwell Home was originally constructed in 1796. Despite how well maintained it looks, it’s actually the oldest structure on the island. The house was built by Jacob Blackwell, who was the great-grandson of Robert.


The Blackwell family was incredibly influential to New York City and the United States as a whole. Across generations The Blackwell’s fought for the abolition of slavery and women’s rights. Many members of the family made incredible progress with these plights.


In 1832 Hannah and Samuel Blackwell immigrated from England to New York City. Hannah and Samuel’s daughter Elizabeth Blackwell was the first female doctor, meaning the first woman with a medical degree, in the United States. She also is the first woman listed on the Medical Register for Generic Medical Council in the United Kingdom.


Elizabeth Blackwell started her career as a schoolteacher, but became interested in medicine when a friend fell ill. Her friend told her that they would have suffered less if there had been female doctors. Blackwell was rejected from every single medical institution she applied to except for Geneva Medical College. Geneva required the male students to vote on Blackwell’s acceptance before it was approved.


In 1847, Elizabeth Blackwell started her education. Blackwell went on to have lasting effects on the medical community, even while she was still in school. She faced ongoing prejudice throughout her career. She established an Infirmary with her sister Emily in 1857. The Infirmary still exists and is the only hospital south of Greenwich Village in Manhattan. She advocated for the education of girls and helped organize nursing efforts during the Civil War.


Emily Blackwell, Elizabeth’s Sister, also became a doctor and faced similar rejection and prejudice. Emily was even rejected from Geneva Medical College. Finally in 1853, Emily was accepted into Rush Medical College in Chicago but that was short-lived after the other students complained about having to study with a woman. Emily ended up receiving her degree in 1854 from Western Reserve University.


Lucy Stone was another very influential member of the Blackwell Family. Born in 1818, Stone would go on to become an incredible activist working for abolition and women’s rights, among other causes. Stone married into the Blackwell Family but kept her maiden name, something that was unheard of at the time. She also became the first woman in the state of Massachusetts to earn a college degree. She even persuaded Susan B. Anthony to get involved in the Women's Suffrage movement.


Stone’s daughter, Alice Stone Blackwell was born in 1857. Alice kept the family values alive. After extensive education at Boston University, where she was the president of her class, she went on to fight for equality.


She was active in organizations that her mother helped to found, including the National Woman Suffrage Association.


Much like the impact of their work, the Blackwell Family house still sits, seemingly unphased my time, on Roosevelt Island.


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