Elizabeth was born in 1821, in Bristol, England, one of nine children. Her father, who owned a sugar refinery, was active in the anti-slavery movement and wanted his daughters to have the same educational opportunities as their brothers. In her autobiography, she described her childhood as “very happy years, rich and satisfying.”
When she was 11, after the sugar refinery burned down, the family moved to America in pursuit of business opportunities and progressive ideas. They spent the next six years in New York City and the suburbs of Long Island and New Jersey. Elizabeth attended school and threw herself into the abolitionist movement, attending anti-slavery meetings and sewing for abolitionist fundraising fairs.
In 1838 at age 17, with her father’s new sugar refinery struggling, business prospects lured the family to Cincinnati. They were “full of hope and eager anticipation,” she wrote. But within a few months of arriving, her father died, leaving the family penniless.
To support the family, Elizabeth and her sisters opened a young ladies’ day and boarding school. They closed it after a few years, and Elizabeth went on to teach in several states. It is during this time that she had the meeting with the dying family friend that changed her life.
“The idea of winning a doctor’s degree gradually assumed the aspect of a great moral struggle,” she wrote in her memoir, “and the moral fight possessed immense attraction to me.”
Her teaching jobs took on new meaning: to earn money to fund her education. She took a post teaching music in South Carolina, where she boarded with the family of a distinguished physician who gave her access to his vast medical library, and she spent all her spare time studying.
Soon, she applied to more than 20 medical schools and “was not surprisingly rejected by them all,” Dr. Tung says. “Fortunately, she had a mentor,” an esteemed physician, who wrote a letter on her behalf to Geneva Medical College in upstate New York.
On October 20, 1847, Elizabeth received an acceptance letter that became one of her most cherished possessions. The letter explained that her acceptance had been put to a vote before the entire medical class, which voted affirmatively. “Legend has it,” Dr. Tung says, “they thought it was a joke.”