— BOOK AND MEDIA REVIEWS —

The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine To Women—And Women to Medicine

Carol P. Motley, MD | Lekha Vemuru, MD

Fam Med. 2022;54(1):67-68.

DOI: 10.22454/FamMed.2022.415764

Book Title: The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine To Women—And Women to Medicine

Author: Janice P. Nimura

Publication Information: New York, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2021, 320 pp., $27.95, hardcover

Medicine in the mid-1800s saw a number of advances, including the establishment of medical schools to provide formal instruction. However, it was still believed that women should be excluded from the practice of medicine. It took two determined sisters to change this. The first sister to graduate from medical school was Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910). She was followed by her sister Emily. In a biography based largely on letters and diary entries by Elizabeth, Janice P. Nimura tells the story of the Doctors Blackwells’ struggles and successes. Although part of Emily’s story is told in the book, the focus is primarily on Elizabeth. The story is set in the historical period of her life and references famous contemporaries, including doctors, artists, and activists of the time.

Elizabeth’s personality as a persistent and driven woman is well illustrated. Her passion to become a physician was morally directed. She had a religious vision as a young woman that validated this passion. A quote from Elizabeth’s diary reads, “The idea of winning a doctor’s degree gradually assumed the aspect of a great moral struggle … and the moral fight possessed immense attraction for me” (p. 30). The book follows Elizabeth from her early youth until her death. Her career and personal life were interwoven and dictated by her mission to move medicine forward by and for women.

Although Elizabeth applied to many established schools she was rejected over and over again. Her efforts are well documented and show her unbreakable spirit. Unbeknownst to her, Elizabeth’s eventual acceptance to Geneva Medical School happened as a joke. The medical school faculty, trying to avoid the issue, turned the decision over to the students. Much to everyone’s shock, the students voted unanimously yes, thinking it would be a farce to have a woman in class.

Elizabeth was described as a diligent student with medicine as the focus of her life. In one setting she showed her commitment to learning by refusing to leave a lecture on the male genitalia. She stated that “she was a student learner of earnest purpose regardless of her gender; hence it would be a grave mistake to dismiss her from this important anatomy lesson” (p. 48). Family physicians will resonate with her view on medicine’s requisite breadth of knowledge: “no one who has the true scientific spirit, when he (or she) has obtained a glimpse of this magnificent land of knowledge, will ever be content with one little corner” (p. 128).

The mission to move women into medicine grew to the belief that women should also have the right to see women physicians. This was solidified when a dying friend told Elizabeth that her ordeal would have been better if she had a female physician. Because of their strong belief, the sisters founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. Later they established a medical school specifically to award the MD degree to women.

According to Nimura, although Elizabeth was a champion for women in medicine, she was not so much interested in women’s rights in general, nor the suffrage movement occurring at the same time. In fact, she had little interest in the rise of nursing even though she was a contemporary of Florence Nightingale.

Unfortunately, while delivering a baby, Elizabeth contracted gonorrhea and lost sight in one eye. After this she spent less time practicing and more time lecturing on medical topics and promoting women in medicine, while Emily continued clinical practice. Elizabeth also published several important books on the issue of women in medicine, including Medicine as a Profession for Women in 1860 and Address on the Medical Education of Women in 1864.

The Blackwell sisters were ahead of their time in other ways. As social activists, they took a stand against slavery and racism. Elizabeth believed that the young should have sex education and she was outspoken about the impact of poverty. Her insight and ideals can be embraced today. Not only were both sisters ahead of their time in moving women forward, in a period just awakening to the germ theory, they emphasized hygiene and hand washing and adhered to the belief that “prevention is better than cure” (p. 252).

The Doctors Blackwell established the precedent for women to be trained as physicians. They were visionaries for specialty care in the health of women. The book is a window into the conviction of two people who would not take no for an answer, their perseverance, and their vision for medicine during the dawn of medical education.

Lead Author

Carol P. Motley, MD

Affiliations: South Baldwin Regional Medical Center Family Medicine Residency Program, Foley, AL

Co-Authors

Lekha Vemuru, MD - University of Florida COM, Department of Community Health and Family Medicine, Gainesville, FL

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