The Doctors Blackwell by Janice P. Nimura


The subtitle of this book is “How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women — and Women to Medicine.” I listened to Nimura speak about her new book on an internet book tour, and decided I should follow my first instinct and read it. In 1849, Elizabeth was the first female in America to earn and medical degree. Her younger sister, Emily, followed her pioneering path and together they set up a practice in NYC for indigent women which became (not without difficulties) a hospital and a medical college for women.

There were eight Blackwell siblings, all interesting people who frequently corresponded by mail and were in the habit of keeping their letters. Their letters and the journals of Elizabeth and Emily are all-important to the story of their lives.

I had great interest in learning about the specifics of medical training in America, France and England in this era. It’s a pretty terrifying read. Anyone for leeches on the cervix? I’m not making this up. Who could make this up? And then there were the treatments Elizabeth herself endured when she picked up an infection in both her eyes while training in a maternity hospital. It’s amazing she lost only one of her eyes as a result. That loss meant she could not pursue a career as a surgeon but, oh my, she was the driving force in the realization of her vision. We’d say that Elizabeth was the big-picture person, not much interested in hands-on treatment of patients, and Emily was all about being hands-on. Elizabeth is a chilly character, and Nimura doesn’t look past that in her biography. No falling completely in love with your subject here, which I appreciated.

I wouldn’t say this is a must-read, but I thought you might enjoy knowing a bit about the Doctors Blackwell.

2 comments on “The Doctors Blackwell by Janice P. Nimura”

  1. I have a new family practitioner whom I really like. She just wrote a short article for a local magazine about women’s health and mentioned Elizabeth Blackwell. She failed to mention the leeches in her article. I am always interested in learning about women pioneers. We owe them a lot!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. What a coincidence. I’m not surprised the leeches didn’t come up! Did you know that Gertrude Stein went to medical school? She was, I think, pretty much chewed up and spit out before she could finish, though.

      Liked by 1 person

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