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5.0 out of 5 starsAn Important and Enjoyable Addition to the Blackwell Canon
Reviewed in the United States on January 21, 2021
Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a regular MD degree in the English-speaking world, is a legitimate hero to women, to medicine, and perhaps anyone who has tackled societal prejudices. Nimura does a wonderful job of bringing her story, and equally importantly, her sister's story to a new generation. The Blackwell family left mountains of letters and Nimura has plumbed them for nuggets that put an accessible human feel to a brilliant, determined, and often standoffish person. As a reader, and a physician, I felt that I could probably see Blackwell or her current incarnation in people around me. Nimura has also made a nice addition to the Blackwell canon, which already has a first-rate biography (Julia Boyd's 2005 "Excelllent Doctor Blackwell") and numerous admiring retellings of her story. If I could offer a criticism, and it is not to Nimura as much as to the wave of current reviewers, Blackwell was a genuine innovator, no doubt, but she had help. Austin Flint, Stephen Smith and other New York physician leaders were appalled by their colleagues' misogyny and swam against professional currents from the Blackwells' arrival in New York until their death in 1910 - and beyond. This does not get much attention in Blackwell biographies and even less in homages to her. I don't wish to downplay the challenges women physicians faced, and to some extent still face, but change is about bringing others along. This point in our history feels like a good time to ask how to do that.
There is so much more to this wonderful book than the biographies of the Blackwell sisters. The author uses personal diaries and a plethora of personal letters between the sisters, their family members, friends and colleagues. Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) was the first women in the United States to earn a medical degree, awarded in 1849. She encouraged her sister, Emily (1826-1910) to study medicine too. She acquired her degree in 1854. By that time, Emily was the third American woman to become a doctor. It was by sheer grit, courage and intellect that these women achieved their degrees for no medical college would officially accept a women until 1893. Both Blackwells pursued additional medical training in Europe. Even after they were fully trained, the Blackwells were neither granted privileges at established hospitals nor were they allowed professorships or memberships in professional medical associations. In 1868, the sisters founded the Women's Medical College of New York with its adjoining infirmary. Instead of the standard two years of study, the Blackwells required a rigorous three years. The faculty included both male and female professors. The first Black female physicians were trained by the Blackwells, who were staunch abolitionists.
The author reveals how cursory medical school education was in the United States during the 19th century. Most students lacked high academic skills and courses were rarely rigorous. Medical practice itself was rather primitive. Patients were examined and probed with ungloved, unwashed hands and unsterilized instruments. Surgery took place in operating theaters that were unclean using unsanitary instruments The germ theory of disease had not yet been discovered. The reader will be shocked at the "implements" and "elixirs" used to "cure" patients. Sometimes these treatments led to death.
Though the Blackwells were essentially restricted to the practice of obstetrics and gynecology, they were well versed in all the major disciplines of medicine of their era. The sisters never considered themselves feminist trailblazers yet today, a shade over 50% of all medical students are female. Currently, 35% of registered physicians in the United States are women. Their legacy may not be fully appreciated by all MDs, but the numbers underscore the impact of the Blackwell sisters.
5.0 out of 5 starsTriumph of single-minded determination, passionate idealism, and personal sacrifice
Reviewed in the United States on February 17, 2021
It is hard to imagine the enormity of the obstacles that Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell overcame throughout their lifetimes. In the mid-nineteenth century, women were meant to follow the traditional path and stay home caring for children and family. Viewed as pitiable, undesirable, contemptible, even dangerous, women who wished to follow non-traditional paths endured skepticism and outright hostility at every turn.
From an early age, Elizabeth Blackwell knew that she was different from her peers but she willed herself to be unconcerned with the opinions of others and grew to be comfortable with her status as an outsider. As she grew up, her interests focused on health issues, especially for women, and she became driven to learn everything she could about the human body and the effects of disease. She also recognized that her younger sister, Emily, had similar interests and even greater aptitude, and strongly encouraged this interest.
Elizabeth began a seemingly quixotic quest for acceptance into medical school, convinced that she should become a physician. In those days, society as a whole and the medical profession in particular, found the idea of a woman physician unthinkable. However, she was undeterred in her determination, stubbornly unwilling to compromise her principles, and staunchly persuasive in her campaign to be accepted into a reputable medical school on the same level as the male students. She was able to secure admission to Geneva Medical College in western New York State, class of 1847-1848. While not entirely on terms she had requested, at least she had arrived at an institution that could grant her a medical degree and perhaps some semblance of legitimacy. Notably this did little to smooth the way for Emily to enter a top-level medical college five years later. After submitting numerous applications, she was eventually allowed to begin her medical training in 1852 at Rush Medical College in Chicago. However, the trustees bowed to public outcry and voted not to allow her to finish. After exhausting numerous other options, Emily was at last admitted to Cleveland Medical College where she was allowed to finish her medical education and won her M.D., graduating in 1854.
Working together for many years and separately for many more, the sisters would spend the rest of their lives trying to raise the level of medical care available for women and those of little means. At the same time they were struggling to be accepted as trained physicians, and to elevate the standing of women in the medical profession.
This book helped to understand what drove these women to defy conventional norms for women of their day. They displayed extraordinary character and unshakeable self-assurance in the face of near-universal opposition and withering condemnation.