The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women and Women to Medicine

by Janice P. Nimura

Hardcover, 2021




W. W. Norton & Company (2021), Edition: 1, 336 pages


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."… (more)


½ (42 ratings; 3.7)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Cariola
While the focus of this biography sounded interesting, in the end, I didn't particularly enjoy it and skimmed through the last half. The main irritant for me was Elizabeth Blackwell herself. While her determination to become a medical doctor--the first woman to earn the degree in the US--is
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admirable, I found her to be an extremely unpleasant and unlikable woman. Instead of the empathetic personality I had expected to find, she comes across as selfish and misanthropic. You would expect the founder of a hospital for indigent women to care about those she served and strive to change their living conditions, but Elizabeth's only concern was achieving her own "greatness." She could turn on the charm for those who had something she wanted or needed, but she seemed incapable of true friendship, especially with other women. As soon as someone disagreed with her or had any ideas of her own, the two parted ways. With Elizabeth, it was clearly "My way or the highway," even in the case of her fellow physician sister, Emily. Of the two, Emily was more devoted to practicing medicine, while Elizabeth preferred teaching and giving lectures on hygiene and morality. When the sisters clashed regarding how to run their medical college for women, Elizabeth packed up and moved to Scotland. (Her disdain for the US is another point that rankled.) Elizabeth was also strongly against women's suffrage, and I found it annoying that someone who spent her life trying to prove that an intelligent, determined woman could be as capable as a man should argue against her sex's participation in governance. She also came across as jealous of other women who achieved "greatness," such as Florence Nightingale or Dorothea Dix. More than two thirds of the book focused on Elizabeth, which explains why I started to skim and speed read the last half. Emily was the more human and admirable sister, but she got short shrift here, perhaps because Elizabeth had expected her to become little more than an assistant to her own greatness. Emily had ideas of her own and actually cared about her female patients, coworkers, and friends. But I guess that made her less interesting to the author.
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LibraryThing member FormerEnglishTeacher
The story of the remarkable Blackwell sisters, pioneers in a field where they were the first women to be able to put M.D. after their names. Especially Elizabeth fought more battles than any person should have to to have her sex accepted into a field which was deemed only appropriate for men. Now,
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as is stated in the Coda of the book, more than half of med school students are women and 45% of doctors are women. Nimura brings the sisters Blackwell to the reader with meticulous research and wonderful stories that ensure anyone picking up The Doctor Sisters will have a clear understanding of the medical field of the 19th century as well as the path Elizabeth and Emily took to become a part of it.
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LibraryThing member MaggieFlo
Elizabeth Blackwell was the fist woman graduate from the medical school in Geneva, New York to become the first female physician in the USA. Her younger sister Emily followed a few years later.
The Blackwell family, headed by Sam and Hannah left Bristol England in 1832 with their 8 children to
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establish a sugar refinery in New York. The family members were liberal thinkers, abolitionists and believers in equal rights for,
men and women. From this background, emerged children who were intelligent, confident, head strong and ambitious.
Elizabeth initially started out as a school teacher but found the work to be unrewarding. She tried to gain entry into several medical schools but was barred until she was accepted into the Geneva Medical school and granted a degree in 1854. She travelled to Europe and furthered her obstetrics training at la Maternité hospital in Paris. She was appalled at the hygienic conditions at the hospital and forever valued good hygiene and public health practices. Her return to the USA was less than positive as she had a great deal of difficulty attracting patients and financial support. However, in 1857 with her sister Emily and Dr. Maria Zakrzewska, a polish medical doctor, she established the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children.
As the American Civil War broke out, the Blackwell sisters and nurses became part of the team that organized care for wounded American troops following the breakthroughs made by Florence Nightingale.
Elizabeth had some odd ideas about women and men. One imagines that would be a feminist but in many ways she wasn’t. She believed the caliber of women graduating from medical programs was low, that women shouldn’t need their own medical schools, and that women didn’t need suffrage until they became better educated in order to be better wives and mothers.
She eventually retired from her medical commitments but continued to promote her philosophy regarding public health and hygiene, family planning, equality, social reform and moral rectitude.
She adopted an 8 year old Irish orphan, Kitty Barry to be both a daughter and a servant. Kitty was to call Her Doctor. Not a lot is known about the relationship but Kitty was loyal to her adoptive mother and stayed by her side. She died in 1930.
Elizabeth Blackwell died in 1910 at her home in Sussex, England.
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LibraryThing member scottjpearson
Elizabeth Blackwell, MD, is well known as the first woman doctor in America. Less well known is her sister Emily in becoming a physician. Emily followed Elizabeth’s path through the hardships of initially not receiving a degree despite doing the work. They co-founded a women’s hospital in New
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York City along with a women’s medical college.

Today, around half of all medical students are female. Their careers are the Blackwell sisters’ legacies. Florence Nightingale saw nursing as women’s place in medicine. The Blackwell sisters showed that physicians, too, can be female.

In this biography, Nimura chronicles the hardships, twists, and turns of Emily and Elizabeth’s lives. She tells how they built impeccable resumes in their training, only to struggle in initially drumming up enough business in their practice together. (“Who would want to whisper medical secrets to women anyways?” contemporaries thought.) They found ways to push forward and become both national luminaries and excellent physicians.

This work can inspire anyone who lives around the American healthcare system, especially budding female physicians. It reminds us of the history of struggle behind common contemporary practices. It also teach us to empathize with others’ difficulties because of uncontrollable things – like gender or race. In their lives, Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell showed how excellence can be sought out and attained. Nimura brings that tale home for a new cadre of female medical students.
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LibraryThing member AMKitty
A thoroughly documented and well-researched story of the first woman to earn a medical degree in the U.S. The author did an admirable job of presenting the education and careers of Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell.

After reading the biography, I was most impressed by the snobbery and elitism of
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Elizabeth Blackwell. In spite of her professed desire to improve health care for women, she looked down on the poor and less fortunate than herself. It seems as if she really only wanted a crusade to entertain herself and decided medicine was what she wanted to play at. At times, her journey seemed more a bored daughter of a well-to-do and liberal family rather than a person genuinely interested in improving the lives of others.

The material is a bit dry. But it does lay out the paths Elizabeth followed to get her degree and set the foundation for all the progress that followed. She was petty about the accomplishments of other women; denigrating their character when she couldn’t put down their abilities - although, she didn’t hesitate to bad-mouth her contemporaries’ talents, either.

Interesting history. I think I probably would not have liked Elizabeth Blackwell much as a person, regardless of her accomplishments.
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LibraryThing member CassiesBooksReader
The Doctors Blackwell:How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women and Women to Medicine by Janice P. Nimura is a Historical Biography and Memoirs. It is exciting to read about these women who were brave enough to become physicians at this time in history. I was amazed to read what the
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Doctors Blackwells accomplished in their lives. They provided services for others and society at great sacrifice in their own lives. I am sure the Blackwell sisters might have influenced my own 3rd Great Grandmother who became a Lady Doctor in 1861 and therefore many other family members who have followed in medicine.
An inspiring biography and history of the Faith and Spirit of two Women who made a difference in the world.
I received a complimentary copy of this book. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. I appreciate the opportunity and thank the author and publisher for allowing me to read, enjoy and review this book. 5 Stars
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LibraryThing member cbl_tn
“I love’s people I can’t stand!!” (Linus Van Pelt, 1959). Elizabeth Blackwell, America’s first woman M.D., wrote something similar to her brother one hundred years before Linus made his famous statement. Samuel Blackwell moved his large family – his wife, their eight
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children, and other relatives – from England to the United States in the 1830s. The Blackwells were a clannish, intellectual family, who preferred their own company above the company of others.

Elizabeth was the first in the family, and the first woman in the United States, to receive a medical degree. Elizabeth had a low opinion of women in general, and she set out to improve women by setting the example for other women to follow. Elizabeth decided that her sister, Emily, was worthy to follow in her footsteps and assist her in her lofty aspirations, so she pushed Emily into the medical field as well.

This is a well-written biography, with an impressive use of correspondence, diaries, and other archival sources. Its biggest problem is its subject, Elizabeth Blackwell. She wasn’t a likable person. Her contemporaries must have felt the same way about her, because she never achieved the accolades she thought were her due. She earned respect through her determined pursuit of her medical profession, but she was not the inspiration she set out to be at the beginning of her career.
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LibraryThing member reader1009
nonfiction/biography - history

a very readable narrative that must have taken a lot of time to research, referencing decades of Elizabeth's cross-written correspondence.

Elizabeth Blackwell was highly judgemental, anti-women's rights (thinking most other women flighty and stupid), and acted with
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entitlement that a poorer woman or a woman of color probably wouldn't have. Still, she and her younger sister Emily did have to overcome a lot of major challenges (mainly, being allowed to enroll in the men-only medical schools and trying to find medical internships/work-study), and because of them the medical field did eventually start to regularly admit women within their lifetime.
The details about medical practices during the time period were also interesting.
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LibraryThing member thornton37814
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.
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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.
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LibraryThing member prudencegoodwife
Janice Nimura does an excellent job of making both these sisters, in fact the entire Blackwell family, come to life. The book is well researched; the notes and bibliography give excellent sources for further research. Both these women through perseverance and through ridicule, opened the doors for
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themselves and for other women do enter the study of and practice of medicine through education and graduation. Makes citizens of New York State proud of what they accomplished.
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LibraryThing member Hccpsk
Elizabeth Blackwell was the first female doctor in the United States, and she —with her sister Emily — spent her life trying to advance the cause of women in medicine in the US and in Europe. Author Janice P. Nimura gives readers an excellent book about the sisters, but focused mainly on
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Elizabeth, through a treasure trove of letters and other primary sources. The book is also an interesting look at medicine and the world of education during the late 19th century.
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LibraryThing member japaul22
I enjoyed this dual biography of sisters Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to earn a medical degree in America in 1849. This was, of course, no easy road. Medical schools were not open to women so she had to fight her way in. But gaining the education may have
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been the easiest part, once you begin reading about her life trying to be recognized as a doctor. She encouraged her younger sister Emily to also pursue a career in medicine, partially to have an ally.

Elizabeth spent time in Paris, London, and America, finally opening a clinic for the poor in New York. Her beliefs in the benefits of hygiene, fresh air, and exercise above dubious medicines and harmful surgeries were definitely ahead of her time. She and Emily ran this clinic for decades. They later started a school for women to study medicine. Both had been against schools exclusively for women, believing they would be of lesser quality and preferring that women be allowed into the already existing schools available to men. Unfortunately, this wasn't happening, so they finally opened their own. Soon after the opening, Elizabeth departed permanently to London, first trying to continue her career (largely unsuccessfully) and then retiring to Scotland. Emily stayed to run the college.

Both sisters certainly paved the way for women to become doctors, not nurses or midwives only. This book was very readable and engaging and gives a good portrait of both women, Elizabeth predominantly. I've only skimmed the surface of what I learned from this book in this review.
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