Nursing Book Club

The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women — and Women to Medicine by Janice P Nimura

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It’s interesting to wonder what really motivates people, especially important historical figures. In her new book, The Doctors Blackwell, author Janice P. Nimura delves into the lives of groundbreaking 19th century female physicians Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, hoping to better understand what made them tick.

Progressive Family

Elizabeth and Emily were born in Bristol, England, but their family emigrated to New York in 1832. Nimura writes that the Blackwells’ parents were “intellectually adventurous, politically engaged and prized the moral over the material.” In their family of nine children, the girls were granted “the same access to knowledge as the sons,” unusual for the time.

One of the most surprising things about Elizabeth Blackwell is that she had never really wanted to be a doctor, and she found the study of anatomy and disease disgusting.

However, when a family friend dying of uterine cancer lamented that she would have suffered less if she could have had “a lady doctor,” Elizabeth it took as a call to arms and a moral challenge.

The First Female M.D.

In the mid-1800s, the idea of a woman studying medicine, in the company of men, was unheard of. Elizabeth had a difficult time even finding a medical school that would take her.

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When the administrators of Geneva Medical College in Geneva, N.Y., asked students to vote on whether to admit a woman, most of the all-male student body (largely made up of local farm boys) assumed it was a joke.

Even Elizabeth’s mother was stunned when Elizabeth actually received her medical degree in 1849 and became the first female M.D. in the U.S. Elizabeth was not welcomed by the all-male medical community.

Even overseas, in Paris and London, hospitals refused to recognize her credentials. She reluctantly entered midwifery training at a Paris hospital for poor unwed mothers, where she contracted an infection that left her blind in one eye. Despite these obstacles, Elizabeth encouraged her younger sister to also study medicine.

Emily Blackwell earned her M.D. from Western Reserve University in 1854. She soon joined Elizabeth and Polish physician Marie Zakrzewska to establish the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, and later a medical college taught by and solely for women.

In addition to their hospital and training schools, the sisters were active in public health, establishing a staff of “health visitors” who would go into the homes of post-surgical women patients to promote better hygiene.

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A Crusader and a Scientist

The Blackwells’ motivations were complicated. According to Nimura, Elizabeth Blackwell wanted to push the boundaries of what women could accomplish, but had no real feel for the work involved in healing and didn’t have much compassion for others, even other women. She was not interested in joining the women’s movement or even in promoting women’s suffrage.

Emily Blackwell was less of a crusader than her sister, but Nimura says Emily developed a much greater enthusiasm for medicine and science, which helped her win over many skeptical male physicians and made her a better doctor. I found the Blackwell sisters’ private lives fascinating. They never married (although Emily had a female partner), but they remained close to their family and relied on each other for support.

Elizabeth eventually adopted a daughter, Kitty, who seems to have fallen somewhere between beloved child and devoted housekeeper, following her mother to England after Elizabeth retired in the 1870s. The Doctors Blackwell is not always an easy read, but it opened my eyes to how far professional women have come in the last two centuries.

It’s amazing to see how much the Blackwells had to struggle just to have their education and credentials taken seriously. All of us, men and women, owe them a debt of gratitude.

The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women — and Women to Medicine By Janice P. Nimura (W.W. Norton & Co., 2021)

CHRISTINE CONTILLO, RN, BSN, PHN, is a public health nurse with more than 40 years of experience, ranging from infants to geriatrics. She enjoys volunteering for medical missions.

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