Book review

In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman in the United States to earn a medical degree. Five years later, her younger sister Emily became the third woman to do so. Their story is told in riveting detail in “The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women — and Women to Medicine,” by Janice P. Nimura. To apprehend their ambitions and achievements is to appreciate how hard it was to do what they did when no medical schools accepted women. 

Nimura, an independent historian, knows how to tell this kind of story. In her fine first book, “Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back,” she wrote about three pioneering young Japanese women who were educated in the U.S. in the 1870s. In “The Doctors Blackwell,” Nimura draws from the many letters the Blackwells wrote, contemporaneous news articles about them, and the histories of the institutions that interacted with them — either educating them or refusing to do so — to bring their story to life.

Two of nine children in their family, the Blackwell sisters charted their way after their father died in 1838, leaving his widow with $20. Elizabeth was 17. The family lived in Cincinnati, and drank in the influences of the Transcendentalists, Unitarians and abolitionists around them. All of the sisters worked as teachers to support the family — Elizabeth at one point taught in a dirt-floored Kentucky schoolhouse. They valued their independence and their learning, and pursued both with vigor. Everyone in the Blackwell family “recognized Elizabeth’s caged force,” writes Nimura.  

Elizabeth sent letters of introduction to study with and prove herself to individual doctors. She applied to Geneva College in New York, where a feckless faculty let the students vote on her admission. Focused on the potential hilarity of having a female classmate in anatomy lessons, the students voted for her admission. 

Nimura details the many obstacles for a woman to study medicine in the 1840s: gender roles and prejudice against supposed female weakness that would preclude professional usefulness; social disapprobation of women studying the body alongside men; and the jealous gatekeepers of the nascent medical profession at a time when male doctors were pushing female healers to the margins. Male practitioners worried that female patients would wish to see only female doctors.

Being a pioneer in medicine didn’t make Elizabeth a leader in the women’s rights movement. Rather, Elizabeth’s ambition and idealism verged on misogyny, according to Nimura, in her lifelong disdain of women’s activism and organizations. She dismissed the women’s activism at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 as directionless “little eddies.”

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With Elizabeth’s persistent encouragement, Emily earned her medical degree in 1854 at the Cleveland Medical Clinic. In the 1850s, the sisters worked together in New York City to found a clinic that would become the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, where they lived and trained other women physicians. 

Elizabeth sought to learn the “bedside knowledge of sickness, which will enable me to commit heresy with intelligence in the future.” Even as the sisters established their practice, they had to constantly cultivate public support for their work and institution. Emily was a practicing surgeon and lecturer who mentored many other women in medicine after Elizabeth moved to England in 1869.

Nimura seamlessly weaves these strands of medical and American history by focusing on the lives of these two self-made women. With an eye to the telling detail, she animates their ambitions, medical training in Europe, family life and friendships with Florence Nightingale, Lucy Stone, Horace Greeley, Henry Ward Beecher, Lady Byron and many other contemporaries.

This double biography focuses more on Elizabeth, the fiery moral crusader, than on Emily, who saw that the point was not to be the first but the “first of legions” of female physicians. The cumulative effect of both of their careers in teaching women in medicine was enormous in expanding women’s roles in American society; their story is one worth knowing.

new nonfiction

‘The Doctors Blackwell’

Janice P. Nimura, W.W. Norton, 336 pp., $27.95