Elizabeth Blackwell believed from an early age that she was destined for a mission beyond the scope of "ordinary" womanhood. Though the world at first recoiled at the notion of a woman studying medicine, her intelligence and intensity ultimately won her the acceptance of the male medical establishment. In 1849, she became the first woman in America to receive an M.D. She was soon joined in her iconic achievement by her younger sister, Emily, who was actually the more brilliant physician.
Exploring the sisters’ allies, enemies, and enduring partnership, Janice P. Nimura presents a story of trial and triumph. Together, the Blackwells founded the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, the first hospital staffed entirely by women. Both sisters were tenacious and visionary, but their convictions did not always align with the emergence of women’s rights—or with each other. From Bristol, Paris, and Edinburgh to the rising cities of antebellum America, this richly researched new biography celebrates two complicated pioneers who exploded the limits of possibility for women in medicine. As Elizabeth herself predicted, "a hundred years hence, women will not be what they are now."
Janice P. Nimura received a Public Scholar Award from the National Endowment for the Humanities in support of her work on The Doctors Blackwell. Her previous book, Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back, was a New York Times Notable book in 2015. Her essays and book reviews have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Salon, and LitHub, among other publications.
I first read about Elizabeth Blackwell in one of those reverent old fashioned kids biographies, long ago, so I was fascinated to read Blackwell's real story. Nimura has done her research well, and I learned a lot about Blackwell that the kid biographies leave out--mainly that she really wasn't that drawn to medicine and didn't practice it that much. It was the idea of a woman becoming a doctor that appealed to her. Nor was she a suffragette, she seems to have felt that they should focus on active work in the community rather than trying to get the vote.
But here's why this is getting such a low review--it's another for my "good material, poor execution" shelf. Nimura starts out pretty well as a storyteller, but eventually it's more a recounting of the facts, the sort of book where you keep waiting for something to happen, and it really doesn't. And what makes this especially sad is that the Blackwells were fascinating, eccentric people. Their circle included suffrage leader Lucy Stone (whose daughter Alice Stone Blackwell became a leader of the movement in her turn) and the Beecher family. This could have been a lively book, but instead, it fades away.
Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell were not typical of women living in the mid-1800's. They grew up in an educated family of open minded thinkers well-versed in the issues of the day. All the Blackwells were ardent abolitionists.
Elizabeth, the older of the two sisters, knew she had the capacity to become successful in any profession she desired, and she was not going to allow her gender to deter her. She arduously petitioned and applied to medical schools. Laughed at, scorned and ridiculed, she was undaunted. Finally by a fluke, almost a joke, she was accepted. Emily had the same barriers years later when she applied. It wasn't until 1893 when some of the more prestigious medical colleges accepted women. 'Doctor' did not describe a woman at that time. They were considered oddities in the worst sense of the word.
The Blackwell sisters were pioneers in the medical profession from the start opening new possibilities for women and changing outdated attitudes and procedures, not just in the U.S. but in Europe as well. Together they opened the N.Y. Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children which remained open until 1981 when it merged with Beekman Downtown Hospital and later with N.Y. Presbyterian Hospital. This hospital also allowed medical degree graduates to gain experience through rigorous in-house training programs. Their hospital was the only one at the time that allowed black doctors to treat white patients. Rebecca Cole, a young black doctor who worked in their hospital became an early voice against racial bias in public health. Being critical of the education women were receiving in all female medical colleges, they opened their own. They changed it from a 2 year program to 3. Exams required lab work and demonstration of skills. Good sanitation was stressed, even before the discovery of germs.
Janice Nimura does a very thorough job telling the story of the Blackwell sisters. Their vision and tenacity was admirable and should make us all appreciative. As much as I respect their accomplishments, I wouldn't want to have either as a friend. Nimura writes of their haughtiness and their "refusal to accept human imperfections". Their rigidity drove people away. They had harsh opinions towards other women, even those who pursued medicine and those who fought for the right to vote. They were disappointed when Pasteur proved many diseases were caused by germs and not by promiscuity. Prudish may have also described them.
I enjoyed this book immensely. Nimura is a wonderful writer; the writing flows nicely. I highly recommend it.
"At their deaths in 1910, Elizabeth at 89 and Emily at 84, there were more than 9,000 female medical doctors, 6% of all. Today 35% of physicians and slightly more than half of medical students are female."
While the focus of this book is on the two Blackwell sisters who became the first women to receive medical degrees in the United States, it also touches on a lot of what was going on in their world, nineteenth-century United States and Europe. The reader will meet many of the movers and shakers of that era and come away with a real feel for the challenges an intellectual woman faced in that time. The Blackwell family moved from Bristol in England to New York in the early nineteenth century. The family, I gather, was upper middle class because the father owned a sugar refining plant in England which burned down. He began anew there, but as an abolitionist, felt ambivalent about this profession, knowing that Caribbean sugar plantations used slave labor. He brought his large family to the U.S. for new opportunity. He moved the family from New York to Cincinnati, then considered the "West", and soon thereafter died. This left the family in something of a financial bind so that all the siblings old enough to, needed to seek work. For the girls, teaching was the best option. Early in the Blackwell sisters' lives, one of their grandmothers had openly revealed her regret at being married and said if she had it to do over, she would not have married "Grandpapa". Interestingly, none of the five girls in the family ever married. Two of the three boys did, but they married strong, intellectual women. By not being married and needing to care for a family, the girls were more free to follow their intellectual pursuits. Elizabeth comes across as brilliant, but very prickly. She apparently sought to become a degreed physician more for the challenge and acclaim than from a desire to practice medicine. Emily, who was six years younger, was actually interested in science and received encouragement from Elizabeth to repeat her feat. Thereafter, Elizabeth seemed to have the ideas and start projects only to let Emily follow through and do the hard work. After receiving their degrees, both women went to Europe for further training. While working in a maternity hospital for indigent women in Paris (as a sort of intern), Elizabeth contracted an infection in one eye and lost that eye. I was really struck at how much traveling the Blackwell siblings were able to do. (For example, Elizabeth went to a sort of spa near the Polish border to try to heal her diseased eye, but without antibiotics, the "water therapy" there did no good. ) It was also interesting that they could choose to just go to and live in European countries. Imagine the paperwork that would entail these days. Some of the Blackwell siblings ended up returning to England, making their lives there. In the end, Elizabeth was one of them. She and Emily had started a women and children's hospital and a medical school for women, but Emily was left to run them in the end. Another interesting thing was the ease with which Elizabeth was able to go to an orphanage and come home with a young girl whom she raised as a sort of helpmate/servant. I was also interested to read of how women were perceived in the nineteenth century and how limited their options were. It makes you realize how extraordinary the Blackwell sisters' achievements were. You can also see clearly that they were able to achieve all they did because they didn't marry. Marriage was no great deal for women then. I was sometimes annoyed with Elizabeth's condescending and opinionated tone. She heartily disapproved of birth control (an attitude common then), but she had never had to bear child after child, at risk to her life and health. I was surprised she could have worked with women and not intuited that. Emily came across as a more sympathetic character. She seemed more down to earth and perhaps dogged in her approach to life. All of the Blackwells were obviously well educated and quite intelligent. They met so many of the notable people of their time. (Elizabeth even met Abraham Lincoln.) I found this book to be fascinating and well-written. The author included a nice bibliography and notes, so the interested reader can explore further. I was struck by the extensive letters and journals the Blackwells left behind, certainly a boon to the author. (This is something that actually concerns me about modern times. I really doubt emails and tweets will survive the years. How will historians in the future 'hear' the voices and learn of the lives of everyday people? In fact, I was interested in reading this book after I heard the author on the PBS Newshour talking about journaling: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/the... ) I am grateful to the publisher and Netgalley for being able to read an advance review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
What distinguishes this book from other non-fiction historical accounts is the marriage of readability and meticulous documentation. The author manages deft storytelling to make the reader wonder, "how will this ever work out," a neat trick when the outline of the sisters' achievements is well known. Bonus: the Blackwell family and acquaintances feel like an intellectual movers and shakers list from the antebellum American north and Europe...names are dropped! We see you Florence Nightingale!
This is a rather heavy, dense tome. Well researched I’m sure but not written in a reader-friendly way, at least not for me.
Having just recently read “They dared to be Doctors: Elizabeth Blackwell & Elizabeth Garrett Anderson” by Mary St. J. Fancourt I didn’t find anything in “The Doctors Blackwell” of any great interest that I didn’t know before.
Of course it could be that I am not in the mood for anything too hefty at the moment.
When I say I did not ‘finish’ the book it means that I skipped around until I got to the end.
An excellent biography of two trailblazing female doctors, who earned their M.D.’s in the mid-19th century—and were also sisters. Elizabeth Blackwell is somewhat well-known as the U.S.’s “first” female doctor (which isn’t really true, the medical profession being entirely unregulated at the time and women having always practiced medicine, but she was America’s first official female M.D.). Lesser known is her younger sister Emily, whom Elizabeth pushed to join her in the profession, and who ultimately proved more interested in practicing medicine and sticking around to lead the institutions Elizabeth founded, while Elizabeth looked for more barriers to topple.
This is a serious biography but still an accessible one, and even having recently read another book that included Elizabeth Blackwell as one of its primary subjects, I still learned a lot. The fact that the two subjects here are sisters means there’s a lot about the eccentric, close-knit Blackwell family. I love a good biography of a sibling group and here there were nine, five sisters and four brothers. None of the sisters ever married, though most of them adopted orphan girls (in some cases as much servants as daughters), and the three who didn’t become doctors were actively involved in supporting their sisters who did: Anna as a journalist, Marian and Ellen as their sisters’ housekeepers. The brothers were supportive too, ferrying their sisters about to various postings; those who married, married women’s rights activists and abolitionists who had some “firsts” under their own belts, and raised daughters who also become activists and doctors.
However, the focus of the book is definitely Elizabeth, with fewer pages devoted to Emily and the others. Elizabeth was a fascinating, idealistic, determined and prickly character. Emily, from this account, is harder to pin down, but she seems somewhat more pragmatic and self-doubting. My biggest criticism of the book is that it starts to seem as if Nimura just disliked Elizabeth and therefore put the worst possible interpretation on everything. She obviously wasn’t perfect, but Nimura seems to come down hard on her for having an ego (in the 21st century? Is this actually a surprise in a trailblazer?) and for distancing herself from the women’s rights movement and being quicker to point out women’s shortcomings than men’s. Which I totally get: even today, older professional women who came up in a male-dominated environment do this, it seems to be a survival strategy, and people who succeeded where others failed often have little patience for those others. I do like a biography that explores the complexities and flaws of its subject’s personality, and maybe it’s just that I identify with Elizabeth in her high expectations and her finding ideals easier than people, but at times this one felt slightly judgmental.
On the other hand, this book manages something that most biographies of early female doctors shy away from, which is also discussing the actual efficacy of 19th century medicine, which was mostly lousy. People wanted to see dramatic results, so bloodletting, blistering, purging, etc., were all the rage. The Blackwells had their doubts about this—Elizabeth in particular believed hygiene and morality more successful than academy-endorsed medicine, and was at least half right—and so the book includes some exploration of different trends in medicine as well as the difficulties for a woman making her way in that extremely male-dominated profession.
Overall, definitely an interesting and well-researched biography that brings some fascinating historical figures to life, along with the medical world of the 19th century. I found it quite readable and am surprised some others didn’t; it’s not one of those light, humorous biographies, but it’s aimed at a general audience and has a strong narrative. It’s too bad that it wraps up the last 40 years of the sisters’ lives, after their professional collaboration ended, in just one chapter, but it does seem like there was less to say about those years. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the topic.
I'm not sure why some reviewers felt this book was dry. It was great. I loved reading about the Blackwell sisters and their struggle to become doctors. The sisters themselves weren't really warm fuzzy people, but the backdrop of women's rights history in America and Europe was very compelling. It was also horrifying to read the accounts of medical doctors in the 1850's. I think you were mostly better off trying to get better on your own at home. I have a lot of admiration for these women pioneers and all they sacrificed to pave the way for women to have opportunities for education. I highly recommend reading this novel.
Non-fiction. The Blackwell family moved from Bristol, England to NYC to Cincinnati, Ohio. Then all over.
Elizabeth Blackwell was the first female physician (1849) to graduate from a US medical school, a few yrs later sister Emily was #3. Elizabeth felt comfortable as a professor of medicine and Emily as the clinician/ surgeon. Their birth family shared abolitionist beliefs. In her 40s Elizabeth obtained a young girl "Kitty" from an orphanage. Ironically Elizabeth used Kitty as part-ward & part-servant. Kitty was given no choices as to her future wants/ needs. Marriage did not appeal to Elizabeth, so she thought ditto for Emily & Kitty.
Elizabeth lacked social skills & said most woman were weak + uneducated. Women weren't her peers/ equals. She thought women's rights/ suffrage supporters: too dramatic. Eliz. didn't want to alienate men. She knew Harriet Beecher Stowe & Florence Nightengale. Flo + Eliz. encouraged female medical vocations: nurses and physicians, respectively. Flo firmly taught that medicine demanded celibacy of female practitioners. Flo carried a small pet owl in her pocket!
The Geneva Medical College (later absorbed by Syracuse University) trained Elizabeth. The College session went October through January, and the next year too. In between she worked & resided at a hospital for midwife training. The hospital had 600 indigent beds. A baby had infected eyes after his mom w/ gonorrhea gave birth. Eliz. unknowingly transferred infection from the baby to herself, while cleaning baby's eyes. Elizabeth eventually lost one of her eyes and needed a class eye. Once she had a medical degree, what to do next?
Doctors Elizabeth & Emily Blackwell opened a hospital and dispensary for poor women and children in May 1857 in NYC. They had the support of pastor Henry Ward Beecher and newspaper men, making their fundraising easier. Eliz. and plutonic friend Dr. Elder visited Abe Lincoln at the White House in 1864. Later Eliz. wrote family members about Abe's ugly looks. Brilliant Eliz. couldn't recognize brilliant Abe! And Abe was knee-deep in the Civil War.
Nov. 1868 Eliz. & Emily opened the Women's Medical College of the New York Infirmary (65%mark). They required of students 3 years of study. Eliz. was the Dean of Faculty. Within 8 months. Eliz. took a boat to England and never returned to the US. Emily did much better away from Eliz.'s shadow. Emily ran the college 30 years and then closed it. In the intervening years woman were more readily accepted into mainstream medical schools in the US.
Some male physicians mentored these 2 sisters, some went through the motions, and some showed open hostility. The sisters were liked sponges & gained medical knowledge from various persons in the medical community, from books & went abroad to learn about the importance about hygiene +new procedures from other physicians. The author overused quotes from missives between Blackwell sibs. An interesting book which could have been even better.
Interesting and well researched. I appreciate that it doesn't just idolize Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, but shows their lives and traits. Both sisters were determined pioneers, and I admire their determination and persistence. Medical school after medical school rejected both, but they kept looking for individuals that would let them learn and grant them a diploma. At the same, Elizabeth in particular wasn't that interested in medicine, she just wanted to prove that women could do it. She never practiced much medicine, and instead became more interested in hygiene and morality. Emily on the other hand was more interested in the science of medicine and kept the infirmary and college running without Elizabeth. The book also reminded me how parts of medicine were so different in the 19th century, before we understood bacteria and viruses.
I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the history of medicine and/or pioneering women.
This was a fascinating look at medicine in the U.S. and Europe in the 1840's to the 20th century. Without these two amazing women blazing the trail, who knows how long it may have taken for the world to accept female doctors! They were indomitable even though the roadblocks they encountered at every stage of their careers were outrageous. How wonderful for Ms. Nimura to bring to everyone's notice how courageous these women were and what a huge impact they had on medicine and on women as well! A tour de force!
It took fierceness and a big ego to face down the male-dominated world that Elizabeth Blackwell found herself in when she decided she could do anything they could do. And she, herself, needed a backup support. Luckily she had Emily, her sister. Between them they would change the world I live in. And if you are reading this, you, too. From the time Elizabeth presented herself as an MD (one of 3) to the day she died, the measure of how much things had changed are in the number of female doctors with MD after their names - 9,000 in the US. In a lifetime, 6% of all US doctors. As of the date of this book's publishing that number grew to 35%, with med school enrollment at roughly 50/50 as students. Exactly the change for which those two sisters were laboring.
What's interesting, in that odd way interest can get weird is that Elizabeth herself was cranky, bigoted, self-interested more often than not, and rather immoveable when it came to her own opinions. She was difficult to live with, and poor Emily paid the price. They were women of their time, and hard on those women who fell short on Blackwell morals. They were a few of the first women to write about and encourage women to discover and enjoy all the perks (orgasm) of their own bodies BUT keep it within the very limited range of child-bearing years, under the umbrella of sanctioned unions. Once one was beyond child-bearing years, or out from under a proper relationship, well, all that pleasure gets retired permanently.
Still, with all their quirks, I wanted a better tale. This could have been one. Rather, it was a chronology of facts, delivered very flatly. Like an FBI report, I imagine (the FBI really has never allowed me to read one, but I imagine they are all "just the facts, ma'am."). Oh, well. I'm glad the book got to me - it is interesting, with things you'd never think happened. Such as her on one of Elizabeth's first flash assignments from her male over-teachers - to dissect a penis. She went at it without a blink. As years went by and her circle of profession crossed paths with the world famous Florence Nightingale; Elizabeth had no problem dressing her down in public. And the one the stays with me the most and keeps me thankful I live now. . .the exam that Elizabeth wrote about in a letter home: it had been a difficult week and the hardest part was getting a leech to stay stuck on a cervix during a bleeding. Evidently it was awkward and took a long time, it wanting to wander and not staying put. . .
I rate this book a low-ish three stars, unfortunately drawn low not by the writing but by the truly unpleasant nature of one of its subjects. I am a strong believer in women’s equality, and it is obvious that someone had to plough her way through the roadblocks long placed by the patriarchs in control of society. Elizabeth Blackwell was that breaker of roadblocks: first woman to earn a medical degree in the US, first woman registered as a physician in Britain. She was persistent, yet persistently unpleasant. She had no interest in sisterhood, except in exploiting her own blood sisters. She looked down on women in general. And the author ran this point into the ground.
Still, she set up clinics, a hospital, even a medical school that catered to women at the same time that she was a bully and a snob. How to reconcile these?
It was her younger sister Emily who secured the legacy. Six years younger, Emily’s education and career and even personal life were directed by her sister. Elizabeth only truly trusted family members, so when she made sure that there was back-up leadership for the institutions she envisioned (but wasn’t willing to put time and effort into sustaining them), she went to her sister. That became Emily’s job.
The saving grace was that Elizabeth decamped back to England, and when separated by an ocean Emily was allowed to work and thrive on her own terms.
The greatest legacy someone can leave behind in working for an institution is that it can move forward even after the charismatic leader has departed. Without Elizabeth and under Emily Blackwell’s leadership, the Woman’s Medical College was able to churn out small classes of graduates until the nearby Cornell med school finally opened its doors to women and poached their students (success!). Their New York Infirmary for Women and Children would serve the community until 1981.
I can’t recall reading about an historical figure about whom my opinion changed so dramatically during the read. I kept getting more and more shocked and irritated: Loc 4136: “They are all hard, mannish, soulless; and though they are all doing excellent service as pioneers,and I am always happy to praise them, as women physicians such as we wish to see as a permanent and valuable feature of society, I find them not only useless but objectionable.” Loc 958: “She had always been someone who would rather impress than endear.”
A Pulitzer Prize nominee for 2022, Janice P. Nimura's book on Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell is worthy of the nomination. Elizabeth Blackwell was the third of nine children of Samuel and Hannah Blackwell and was born in Bristol, England, in 1821. Younger sister Emily was born in 1826. The family emigrated to America in 1932, settling in the Cincinnati, Ohio area. The abolitionist family was close, but most siblings would scatter around the US and England in adulthood. Elizabeth became the first female medical doctor in 1849 after years of fighting a patriarchal society. She was originally not accepted to several medical colleges but won over her dissenters to join as a student at Geneva Medical College in Geneva, New York, in 1847. Elizabeth later furthered her studies in Paris and London. While in Paris, she lost one eye due to disease, ending her ambition for a career as a surgeon. Elizabeth would eventually return to America, where she opened several medical facilities for women and indigent people. Her patients were few, not trusting a woman doctor.
Young Emily looked up to her sister and sought counsel on a life in medicine. She was rejected by Geneva Medical College, Elizabeth's alma mater, but was able to enter Medical College of Cleveland, Ohio, the Medical Branch of Western Reserve University, earning her degree in 1854, becoming the second female medical doctor in America. She also followed her sister's footsteps by training in Europe. Once back in America, Elizabeth and Emily founded the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, along with Dr. Marie Zakrzewska. They also opened a women's medical college that stayed open for about 30 years.
Nimura utilized letters, journals, and family papers to piece together the lives of Elizabeth and Emily, sharing their innermost dreams, desires, and concerns as they traversed a medical world that was not inviting to women. Although they were abolitionists and had strong support for women in medicine, neither would join the feminist cause of suffrage, felt that women should be equal to men, but men should hold importance as well, even over women.
This was a well-researched book on the sisters Blackwell and read like a novel, very engaging.
The Doctors Blackwell was not the self-congratulatory girlboss book I expected — Nimura teases out a lot of very interesting ironies of the sisters’ views and calculations, from their staunch abolitionist views + mentorship of slave owning physicians, to keeping other women at arm’s length lest they reflect poorly on the very best and brightest (themselves), the politics of letters of introduction and see-sawing from England to the east coast to keep training, arguing w Florence Nightingale over women’s aptitude for nursing vs physicians. the sisters, of their own account, were not in it for the platitude of “helping people,” or even for passion of science, but to prove a point, and that’s very funny and admirable to me, lol.
while not their primary concern, one thing that struck me was just how sad and nasty gynecological issues were for women of this period. It makes me want to read more social histories of sexually transmitted diseases + public health regulations around sex work, which get mentioned briefly here.
to all the haters in the GR reviews: sure, it’s not a thriller — but you maybe shouldn’t expect a history book on breaking into the medical establishment in the 1850s to be binge-able. It’s very well researched and I would recommend for all those interested in women, medical history, slow institutional change without the side of girl power prose
A good biography of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman doctor in the U.S., and her sister Emily, who also became a doctor. The history and story a good read, but Elizabeth Blackwell comes across as quite the snob.
I did not enjoy reading this book but I’m glad I did. The information about the Blackwell sisters and their contemporaries was valuable and I’m surprised that their stories aren’t more popular and well-known. The writing style of this book is just so boring. I appreciated it more after our book club discussion.
I wanted to like this so much more than I did. This story would seem to be right up my alley, a biography of two of the first female physicians in the United States. The beginning was interesting enough, detailing Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell's childhoods and what propelled them to try to attend medical school. Their eventual acceptances into male medical schools as pioneers was notable and they were both excellent students. After graduation, Elizabeth, the elder of the two spent a number of years trying to figure out how to practice medicine without being relegated to the side as a "women's doctor". Emily, who entered medical school several years later had an easier path and was seemingly, the more skilled doctor. The problem was that after they set up their hospital, there wasn't much to write about. 40 years go by and we learn about retirement and their deaths. While Janice P. Nimura did a lot of research and writes very well, these lives were unable to sustain a biography.
I found the first 2/3 of this book very interesting as the sisters navigated a medical training system not designed for women. The last third seemed a little less compelling. Valuable for its portrait of the Blackwell family and social issues of the day as well as the medical journeys of Elizabeth and Emily.
I thought this book was boring and it was difficult for me to get through. Perhaps this is one of the rare cases where I'd be more interested in watching a movie about the subject instead of reading a book.
While the author did a good job researching her subjects, I found Elizabeth Blackwell to be unlikable. She looked down her nose at everybody--even her own family members. She was the first female to gain admittance to a reputable medical school--but only because the students thought it was a joke. She didn't seem to enjoy practicing medicine once she became a doctor although she did fight for other women to have that right. She along with her sister Emily (who always ended up doing most of the work without the notice Elizabeth gained) founded a medical school for women in New York. The incorporation of social history was also impressive. I came away with more respect for the sister Emily who probably would not have chosen medicine as her career without her sister's influence than for Elizabeth. I suspect Emily would have chosen a career as a naturalist or something similar if she'd been left to her own devices. We can't rewrite history, but we can wonder what might have happened if she'd been willing to stand up to her sister. (3.5 stars)
Interesting book about the first female doctors who were also sisters, in the United States. Working in medicine and being female, I found this book fascinating for both the history of medicine and the oppression of women. This book also packs in a lot of general history lessons of the time era from early 1800’s to the early 1900s. The evolution of medicine and science was a fascinating tale told from the sisters, Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell. The discrimination and hardships they faced to even attend medical school, study as doctors and then practice was immense. Enjoyed listening to the lives of Emily and Elizabeth and how they were able to support women in the field of medicine during a era women were not welcome.
The odds are decent that you have never heard of Elizabeth & Emily Blackwell. Good news! This is the book for you.
Author Janice Nimura gives us a compelling and approachable biography of the Blackwell sisters--or rather, two of the Blackwell sisters, Elizabeth and Emily. When events take a tragic turn, the Blackwell siblings realize they must take charge of their financial security. They start their own school, educate their younger siblings, disperse to find employment, and eventually find a way to pursue viable careers. Elizabeth Blackwell, the third eldest, opted for medicine. One problem: no woman had ever earned a medical degree in the United States before. Seven years later, her younger sister Emily (the sixth child) follows suit.
Nimura conducted wonderful research for this book. She includes large amounts of the Blackwells' correspondence as well as other primary sources from their contemporaries. Letters, diaries, newspapers... There even are accounts of the Blackwells' time at medical school through their classmates' letters & memoirs, as well as school administrative records, and it's a joy to see how the details differ from one perspective to another. These are the kinds of materials that give us direct insight into the minds of nineteenth century America, both pre- and post-Civil War.
More importantly, Nimura does not put these admittedly incredible women onto pedestals, nor does she dismiss their achievements where they fall short of our expectations. And they often do in understandable but still baffling, frustrating ways. The Blackwell family was abolitionist and believed in education for women, but Elizabeth and Emily did not support women's suffrage or birth control (despite making great strides in gynecological medical treatment). They did not always support other women, whom they deemed frivolous or not as deserving of success as they were in a male-dominated environment. Moreover, they learned from certain unsavory medical professors (who practiced on the poor and the enslaved, often without anesthesia) and, where it benefited the sisters, they socialized with slave owners (some of whom supported abolitionism... which is confusing but definitely a thing since at least the eighteenth century).
As uncomfortable as this all seems, I really appreciated Nimura's dedication to tracing the lives of the Blackwell sisters and their very different approaches to building careers as women in medicine. They did not face the same struggles, nor did they set the same goals for their lives. By the time Emily applied to medical school, Elizabeth's prior success had created several women-only schools, which reportedly provided less rigorous training and none of the all-important status afforded by prestigious men's medical schools. This may seem like a victory in some ways, but it also afforded the men's schools an official reason to reject female applicants (whereas before Elizabeth's groundbreaking degree, the schools had never bothered to officially ban women, presumably because it had not occurred to them that one might apply). Two steps forward, one step back.
Nimura gives us the whole picture, complete with historical context, the interwoven lives of the other Blackwell siblings (not to mention their in-laws), and other women's career paths in the medical world before and after the Blackwells.
Recommended wholeheartedly to anyone interested in 19th century American history, an honest portrait of complex female historical figures, and 19th century medicine in America, England, and France.
Thank you to the publisher and Netgalley for granting me a free eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
This is the latest book in my “summer of uppity women” series. I was fascinated by the lives of Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell. Elizabeth was the first woman to attend and graduate from medical school in the United States. Her younger sister, Emily, overcame rejections from more than one medical school to finally graduate and she ultimately became a respected clinician and surgeon. The sisters started a women’s infirmary in New York City in the 1850s, and in 1868, founded a women’s medical school, which operated for 30 years, until older medical schools finally began to routinely admit women.
Janice Nimura did an amazing amount of research on this interesting book. Definitely recommended.
I really enjoyed this book, and am ASHAMED to admit that I had absolutely zero idea who Emily Blackwell was. After reading this, *she* is the more interesting sister to me (and more sympathetic), even though 4-years-older Elizabeth was the first trailblazer.
LOVE that Elizabeth got her medical degree at Geneva Medical School (what is now Hobart and William Smith College, and about 20 minutes from where I grew up!) but it was absolutely obnoxious and absurd that the same medical school who (grudgingly) accepted Elizabeth refused admission to Emily!!
Hearing about Elizabeth’s early journey in medicine (her GLASS EYE, initial friendship/lowkey rivalry with Florence Nightingale) was so interesting. And she rented her first NYC apartment/practice on the corner of 11th street and University Place, and I was like I KNOW WHERE THAT IS!
Elizabeth’s sustained internal misogyny and her refusal to recognize the feminist/early suffrage movement was completely exasperating. Just so stupid and dumb and I hated it. I had weird feelings about Elizabeth adopting a CHILD because she wanted a servant/ward/someone to help her organize her life, not because she wanted to be a parent.
I got the sense that Elizabeth studied/practiced medicine out of a sense of duty, whereas Emily was inspired by clinical practice and scientific advancement, and actually loved being a physician/surgeon.
Last thing: I wanted more of Emily in this book, BUT I LOVED Emily and new student/colleague/friend Elizabeth Cushier’s relationship. Elizabeth Cushier was 10 years younger, and I immediately was like GAY????? 🥰😍 Perhaps. Maybe they were just the best of friends, but I’d like to believe they were in a non-platonic relationship, and will leave you with these gems from chapter 17:
“I do not know what Dr. Emily would do without her. She absolutely basks in her presence; and seems as if she had been waiting for her for a lifetime...Emily’s partnership with Elizabeth Cushier was warmed by love”