Women were not initially accepted by society as fit to be physicians; medical schools refused to admit them. In 1847 the faculty at Geneva Medical College (now State University of New York Upstate Medical University) did not want to admit women, but desiring the student body’s support put the issue to a vote. The students jokingly voted unanimously to accept Elizabeth Blackwell as a student, thus making her the first women in the United States to earn an M.D. in 1849. However, it was not until about the 1870s that medical schools slowly began to come around to the idea of accepting women.

Stymied in her attempts to obtain hospital privileges, Blackwell practiced out of her own home and later founded in 1857 along with her sister Emily and Maria Zakrzewska, the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, the first hospital in the United States staffed by women, and offering more women the opportunity for advanced training.

Increasing numbers of women were admitted to medical schools during the mid-1800s. Financial forces aided their entry as supporters of feminism made major contributions to schools accepting women. By the late 1800s, several previously all-male schools were admitting and graduating women and legislators allowed charters of medical schools specifically for women. Social acceptance also grew as women physicians increased their visibility by giving lectures on topics of hygiene. A few women, such as Mary Putnam Jacobi, who consulted at major New York hospitals and was the first woman inducted into the New York Academy of Medicine, came to be regarded by male physicians as peers in professional accomplishment. At the end of the 19th century, more than 7000 women were practicing medicine and another 1200 were in medical school.