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

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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 w 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."


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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 w 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."

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

  1. 4 out of 5

    Caren

    While the focus of this book is on the two Blackwell sisters who became the first women to receive medical degrees in the United States, it also touches on a lot of what was going on in their world, nineteenth-century United States and Europe. The reader will meet many of the movers and shakers of that era and come away with a real feel for the challenges an intellectual woman faced in that time. The Blackwell family moved from Bristol in England to New York in the early nineteenth century. The While the focus of this book is on the two Blackwell sisters who became the first women to receive medical degrees in the United States, it also touches on a lot of what was going on in their world, nineteenth-century United States and Europe. The reader will meet many of the movers and shakers of that era and come away with a real feel for the challenges an intellectual woman faced in that time. The Blackwell family moved from Bristol in England to New York in the early nineteenth century. The family, I gather, was upper middle class because the father owned a sugar refining plant in England which burned down. He began anew there, but as an abolitionist, felt ambivalent about this profession, knowing that Caribbean sugar plantations used slave labor. He brought his large family to the U.S. for new opportunity. He moved the family from New York to Cincinnati, then considered the "West", and soon thereafter died. This left the family in something of a financial bind so that all the siblings old enough to, needed to seek work. For the girls, teaching was the best option. Early in the Blackwell sisters' lives, one of their grandmothers had openly revealed her regret at being married and said if she had it to do over, she would not have married "Grandpapa". Interestingly, none of the five girls in the family ever married. Two of the three boys did, but they married strong, intellectual women. By not being married and needing to care for a family, the girls were more free to follow their intellectual pursuits. Elizabeth comes across as brilliant, but very prickly. She apparently sought to become a degreed physician more for the challenge and acclaim than from a desire to practice medicine. Emily, who was six years younger, was actually interested in science and received encouragement from Elizabeth to repeat her feat. Thereafter, Elizabeth seemed to have the ideas and start projects only to let Emily follow through and do the hard work. After receiving their degrees, both women went to Europe for further training. While working in a maternity hospital for indigent women in Paris (as a sort of intern), Elizabeth contracted an infection in one eye and lost that eye. I was really struck at how much traveling the Blackwell siblings were able to do. (For example, Elizabeth went to a sort of spa near the Polish border to try to heal her diseased eye, but without antibiotics, the "water therapy" there did no good. ) It was also interesting that they could choose to just go to and live in European countries. Imagine the paperwork that would entail these days. Some of the Blackwell siblings ended up returning to England, making their lives there. In the end, Elizabeth was one of them. She and Emily had started a women and children's hospital and a medical school for women, but Emily was left to run them in the end. Another interesting thing was the ease with which Elizabeth was able to go to an orphanage and come home with a young girl whom she raised as a sort of helpmate/servant. I was also interested to read of how women were perceived in the nineteenth century and how limited their options were. It makes you realize how extraordinary the Blackwell sisters' achievements were. You can also see clearly that they were able to achieve all they did because they didn't marry. Marriage was no great deal for women then. I was sometimes annoyed with Elizabeth's condescending and opinionated tone. She heartily disapproved of birth control (an attitude common then), but she had never had to bear child after child, at risk to her life and health. I was surprised she could have worked with women and not intuited that. Emily came across as a more sympathetic character. She seemed more down to earth and perhaps dogged in her approach to life. All of the Blackwells were obviously well educated and quite intelligent. They met so many of the notable people of their time. (Elizabeth even met Abraham Lincoln.) I found this book to be fascinating and well-written. The author included a nice bibliography and notes, so the interested reader can explore further. I was struck by the extensive letters and journals the Blackwells left behind, certainly a boon to the author. (This is something that actually concerns me about modern times. I really doubt emails and tweets will survive the years. How will historians in the future 'hear' the voices and learn of the lives of everyday people? In fact, I was interested in reading this book after I heard the author on the PBS Newshour talking about journaling: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/the... ) I am grateful to the publisher and Netgalley for being able to read an advance review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

  2. 5 out of 5

    The Library Lady

    I first read about Elizabeth Blackwell in one of those reverent old fashioned kids biographies, long ago, so I was fascinated to read Blackwell's real story. Nimura has done her research well, and I learned a lot about Blackwell that the kid biographies leave out--mainly that she really wasn't that drawn to medicine and didn't practice it that much. It was the idea of a woman becoming a doctor that appealed to her. Nor was she a suffragette, she seems to have felt that they should focus on activ I first read about Elizabeth Blackwell in one of those reverent old fashioned kids biographies, long ago, so I was fascinated to read Blackwell's real story. Nimura has done her research well, and I learned a lot about Blackwell that the kid biographies leave out--mainly that she really wasn't that drawn to medicine and didn't practice it that much. It was the idea of a woman becoming a doctor that appealed to her. Nor was she a suffragette, she seems to have felt that they should focus on active work in the community rather than trying to get the vote. But here's why this is getting such a low review--it's another for my "good material, poor execution" shelf. Nimura starts out pretty well as a storyteller, but eventually it's more a recounting of the facts, the sort of book where you keep waiting for something to happen, and it really doesn't. And what makes this especially sad is that the Blackwells were fascinating, eccentric people. Their circle included suffrage leader Lucy Stone (whose daughter Alice Stone Blackwell became a leader of the movement in her turn) and the Beecher family. This could have been a lively book, but instead, it fades away.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Sally Stieglitz

    What distinguishes this book from other non-fiction historical accounts is the marriage of readability and meticulous documentation. The author manages deft storytelling to make the reader wonder, "how will this ever work out," a neat trick when the outline of the sisters' achievements is well known. Bonus: the Blackwell family and acquaintances feel like an intellectual movers and shakers list from the antebellum American north and Europe...names are dropped! We see you Florence Nightingale! What distinguishes this book from other non-fiction historical accounts is the marriage of readability and meticulous documentation. The author manages deft storytelling to make the reader wonder, "how will this ever work out," a neat trick when the outline of the sisters' achievements is well known. Bonus: the Blackwell family and acquaintances feel like an intellectual movers and shakers list from the antebellum American north and Europe...names are dropped! We see you Florence Nightingale!

  4. 5 out of 5

    Morgan

    This is a rather heavy, dense tome. Well researched I’m sure but not written in a reader-friendly way, at least not for me. Having just recently read “They dared to be Doctors: Elizabeth Blackwell & Elizabeth Garrett Anderson” by Mary St. J. Fancourt I didn’t find anything in “The Doctors Blackwell” of any great interest that I didn’t know before. Of course it could be that I am not in the mood for anything too hefty at the moment. When I say I did not ‘finish’ the book it means that I skipped aro This is a rather heavy, dense tome. Well researched I’m sure but not written in a reader-friendly way, at least not for me. Having just recently read “They dared to be Doctors: Elizabeth Blackwell & Elizabeth Garrett Anderson” by Mary St. J. Fancourt I didn’t find anything in “The Doctors Blackwell” of any great interest that I didn’t know before. Of course it could be that I am not in the mood for anything too hefty at the moment. When I say I did not ‘finish’ the book it means that I skipped around until I got to the end.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Patricia

    I found THE DOCTORS BLACKWELL to be a very well written book. The author did her job well. This book was also entertaining and will be enjoyed by females everywhere!

  6. 4 out of 5

    Maureen Caupp

    Interesting and well researched. I appreciate that it doesn't just idolize Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, but shows their lives and traits. Both sisters were determined pioneers, and I admire their determination and persistence. Medical school after medical school rejected both, but they kept looking for individuals that would let them learn and grant them a diploma. At the same, Elizabeth in particular wasn't that interested in medicine, she just wanted to prove that women could do it. She neve Interesting and well researched. I appreciate that it doesn't just idolize Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, but shows their lives and traits. Both sisters were determined pioneers, and I admire their determination and persistence. Medical school after medical school rejected both, but they kept looking for individuals that would let them learn and grant them a diploma. At the same, Elizabeth in particular wasn't that interested in medicine, she just wanted to prove that women could do it. She never practiced much medicine, and instead became more interested in hygiene and morality. Emily on the other hand was more interested in the science of medicine and kept the infirmary and college running without Elizabeth. The book also reminded me how parts of medicine were so different in the 19th century, before we understood bacteria and viruses. I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the history of medicine and/or pioneering women.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Dawn

    This was just ok. It was a very interesting topic but the writing was a little dry.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Krisette Spangler

    I'm not sure why some reviewers felt this book was dry. It was great. I loved reading about the Blackwell sisters and their struggle to become doctors. The sisters themselves weren't really warm fuzzy people, but the backdrop of women's rights history in America and Europe was very compelling. It was also horrifying to read the accounts of medical doctors in the 1850's. I think you were mostly better off trying to get better on your own at home. I have a lot of admiration for these women pioneer I'm not sure why some reviewers felt this book was dry. It was great. I loved reading about the Blackwell sisters and their struggle to become doctors. The sisters themselves weren't really warm fuzzy people, but the backdrop of women's rights history in America and Europe was very compelling. It was also horrifying to read the accounts of medical doctors in the 1850's. I think you were mostly better off trying to get better on your own at home. I have a lot of admiration for these women pioneers and all they sacrificed to pave the way for women to have opportunities for education. I highly recommend reading this novel.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Martha Anne Toll

    Here’s my review for NPR Books https://www.npr.org/2021/01/21/958770... Here’s my review for NPR Books https://www.npr.org/2021/01/21/958770...

  10. 4 out of 5

    Christine

    The odds are decent that you have never heard of Elizabeth & Emily Blackwell. Good news! This is the book for you. Author Janice Nimura gives us a compelling and approachable biography of the Blackwell sisters--or rather, two of the Blackwell sisters, Elizabeth and Emily. When events take a tragic turn, the Blackwell siblings realize they must take charge of their financial security. They start their own school, educate their younger siblings, disperse to find employment, and eventually find a way The odds are decent that you have never heard of Elizabeth & Emily Blackwell. Good news! This is the book for you. Author Janice Nimura gives us a compelling and approachable biography of the Blackwell sisters--or rather, two of the Blackwell sisters, Elizabeth and Emily. When events take a tragic turn, the Blackwell siblings realize they must take charge of their financial security. They start their own school, educate their younger siblings, disperse to find employment, and eventually find a way to pursue viable careers. Elizabeth Blackwell, the third eldest, opted for medicine. One problem: no woman had ever earned a medical degree in the United States before. Seven years later, her younger sister Emily (the sixth child) follows suit. Nimura conducted wonderful research for this book. She includes large amounts of the Blackwells' correspondence as well as other primary sources from their contemporaries. Letters, diaries, newspapers... There even are accounts of the Blackwells' time at medical school through their classmates' letters & memoirs, as well as school administrative records, and it's a joy to see how the details differ from one perspective to another. These are the kinds of materials that give us direct insight into the minds of nineteenth century America, both pre- and post-Civil War. More importantly, Nimura does not put these admittedly incredible women onto pedestals, nor does she dismiss their achievements where they fall short of our expectations. And they often do in understandable but still baffling, frustrating ways. The Blackwell family was abolitionist and believed in education for women, but Elizabeth and Emily did not support women's suffrage or birth control (despite making great strides in gynecological medical treatment). They did not always support other women, whom they deemed frivolous or not as deserving of success as they were in a male-dominated environment. Moreover, they learned from certain unsavory medical professors (who practiced on the poor and the enslaved, often without anesthesia) and, where it benefited the sisters, they socialized with slave owners (some of whom supported abolitionism... which is confusing but definitely a thing since at least the eighteenth century). As uncomfortable as this all seems, I really appreciated Nimura's dedication to tracing the lives of the Blackwell sisters and their very different approaches to building careers as women in medicine. They did not face the same struggles, nor did they set the same goals for their lives. By the time Emily applied to medical school, Elizabeth's prior success had created several women-only schools, which reportedly provided less rigorous training and none of the all-important status afforded by prestigious men's medical schools. This may seem like a victory in some ways, but it also afforded the men's schools an official reason to reject female applicants (whereas before Elizabeth's groundbreaking degree, the schools had never bothered to officially ban women, presumably because it had not occurred to them that one might apply). Two steps forward, one step back. Nimura gives us the whole picture, complete with historical context, the interwoven lives of the other Blackwell siblings (not to mention their in-laws), and other women's career paths in the medical world before and after the Blackwells. Recommended wholeheartedly to anyone interested in 19th century American history, an honest portrait of complex female historical figures, and 19th century medicine in America, England, and France. Thank you to the publisher and Netgalley for granting me a free eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Maureen

    I rate this book a low-ish three stars, unfortunately drawn low not by the writing but by the truly unpleasant nature of one of its subjects. I am a strong believer in women’s equality, and it is obvious that someone had to plough her way through the roadblocks long placed by the patriarchs in control of society. Elizabeth Blackwell was that breaker of roadblocks: first woman to earn a medical degree in the US, first woman registered as a physician in Britain. Yet - she was persistent yet persis I rate this book a low-ish three stars, unfortunately drawn low not by the writing but by the truly unpleasant nature of one of its subjects. I am a strong believer in women’s equality, and it is obvious that someone had to plough her way through the roadblocks long placed by the patriarchs in control of society. Elizabeth Blackwell was that breaker of roadblocks: first woman to earn a medical degree in the US, first woman registered as a physician in Britain. Yet - she was persistent yet persistently unpleasant. She had no interest in sisterhood, except in exploiting her own blood sisters. She looked down on women in general. Still, she set up clinics, a hospital, even a medical school that catered to women at the same time that she was a bully and a snob. How to reconcile these? It was her younger sister Emily who secured the legacy. Six years younger, Emily’s education and career and even personal life were directed by her sister. Elizabeth only truly trusted family members, so when she made sure that there was back-up leadership for the institutions she envisioned (but wasn’t willing to put time and effort into sustaining them), she went to her sister. That became Emily’s job. The saving grace was that Elizabeth decamped back to England, and when separated by an ocean Emily was allowed to work and thrive on her own terms. The greatest legacy someone can leave behind in working for an institution is that it can move forward even after the charismatic leader has departed. Without Elizabeth and under Emily Blackwell’s leadership, the Woman’s Medical College was able to churn out small classes of graduates until the nearby Cornell med school finally opened its doors to women and poached their students (success!). Their New York Infirmary for Women and Children would serve the community until 1981. I can’t recall reading about an historical figure about whom my opinion changed so dramatically during the read. I kept getting more and more shocked and irritated: Loc 4136: “They are all hard, mannish, soulless; and though they are all doing excellent service as pioneers,and I am always happy to praise them, as women physicians such as we wish to see as a permanent and valuable feature of society, I find them not only useless but objectionable.” Loc 958: “She had always been someone who would rather impress than endear.”

  12. 5 out of 5

    Gloria

    The lives of Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell were described in this book, along with the other members of their family including sister Anna and brothers. Elizabeth was the first to attempt to go to medical school, and while she succeeded, it was not an easy journey. Later her younger sister Emily was also able to attend medical school. Emily had the greater instinct and desire to actually teach in her own Medical School and to attend to patients there. But before either Blackwell sister was able t The lives of Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell were described in this book, along with the other members of their family including sister Anna and brothers. Elizabeth was the first to attempt to go to medical school, and while she succeeded, it was not an easy journey. Later her younger sister Emily was also able to attend medical school. Emily had the greater instinct and desire to actually teach in her own Medical School and to attend to patients there. But before either Blackwell sister was able to put together a teaching hospital, they did much living and learning in the US and in Europe. Eventually they did set up a school in New York City, though after a fairly short time Elizabeth decided to move back to England and left the running of the hospital and Medical School to Emily. This is a story of Medicine before the knowledge of germs as the cause of disease when more medical procedures were difficult and not as effective as one would hope for. Still, these were the pioneers who set the stage for women to become doctors in the US. I recommend this book.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Julia Klarman litwiller

    It was close to a 4 but not quite close enough to round up. I'm sure it's difficult to write a book like this and make it not sound like text book but it very much read like that for at least the second half of the book. It was pretty interesting to learn about the history of the suffragists and how early they started their cause. Also they touched on Elizabeth starting her professional life the same time as Florence Nightingale which was pretty interesting by contrast. It was close to a 4 but not quite close enough to round up. I'm sure it's difficult to write a book like this and make it not sound like text book but it very much read like that for at least the second half of the book. It was pretty interesting to learn about the history of the suffragists and how early they started their cause. Also they touched on Elizabeth starting her professional life the same time as Florence Nightingale which was pretty interesting by contrast.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Carol

    I picked up this book after hearing the author on NPR and was intrigued. Everyone knows that Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in the US to get a doctor’s degree but very few know know of her sister Emily who was also a doctor. The two were both unusual women especially for their times. The difficulties of entering medical school and then getting to practice were very great. This is their real stories.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Robin

    A good biography of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman doctor in the U.S., and her sister Emily, who also became a doctor. The history and story a good read, but Elizabeth Blackwell comes across as quite the snob.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Jab

    Interesting facts but it certainly covered a ton of material.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Marsha

    I saw a review of this book and I knew I wanted to read it. Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell were such pioneering women. Elizabeth became the first woman doctor in America in 1849. Her younger sister Emily followed her some years later. They face so many obstacles in their long path forward. Reading about some of the procedures that were used at the time was hard to see how they could believe that would work. Medicine has certainly come a long way. Elizabeth had very difficult climb to earn her deg I saw a review of this book and I knew I wanted to read it. Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell were such pioneering women. Elizabeth became the first woman doctor in America in 1849. Her younger sister Emily followed her some years later. They face so many obstacles in their long path forward. Reading about some of the procedures that were used at the time was hard to see how they could believe that would work. Medicine has certainly come a long way. Elizabeth had very difficult climb to earn her degree. She lost one eye while in her training. She could never be a surgeon. Emily on the other hand was a surgeon. They founded the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children which was entirely staffed by women. During this period poor people access to medical treatment was very limited. I had not heard of the Blackwells before and I really enjoyed this book. These women fought a battle to earn their degrees and respect. In 1910, when the Blackwell sisters passed away there were more than 9,00 women doctors in the United States.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Alexis

    This was everything you want in a biography. Extensively researched and well-written, the history of the Blackwells, and 19th century medicine as whole, is presented in an extremely readable fashion. The narrative weaves together many big names of the times, deftly discusses the intersections of the women’s suffrage and abolitionist movements, and provides a compassionate, though unvarnished, history of these first woman MDs. While the accomplishments of the Blackwells sisters are impressive, Ni This was everything you want in a biography. Extensively researched and well-written, the history of the Blackwells, and 19th century medicine as whole, is presented in an extremely readable fashion. The narrative weaves together many big names of the times, deftly discusses the intersections of the women’s suffrage and abolitionist movements, and provides a compassionate, though unvarnished, history of these first woman MDs. While the accomplishments of the Blackwells sisters are impressive, Nimura doesn’t whitewash or editorialize the ways in which they benefited from immense privilege, even by 19th century standards. The sisters were marketed as progressive intellectuals, but the historical record shows that they were happy to compromise their principles of abolition or women’s rights when it served their higher purpose. Working with Sims, training on slave owning estates, not supporting suffrage, intellectualism, classism, and not exactly lifting up other women behind them- the family isn’t the perfect paragons of progress and readers will appreciate that nuance. For a thorough history of medicine, social movements, and the women who paved the way for future MDs, this is a great biography.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Sage

    I really enjoyed this book, and am ASHAMED to admit that I had absolutely zero idea who Emily Blackwell was. After reading this, *she* is the more interesting sister to me (and more sympathetic), even though 4-years-older Elizabeth was the first trailblazer. LOVE that Elizabeth got her medical degree at Geneva Medical School (what is now Hobart and William Smith College, and about 20 minutes from where I grew up!) but it was absolutely obnoxious and absurd that the same medical school who (grudg I really enjoyed this book, and am ASHAMED to admit that I had absolutely zero idea who Emily Blackwell was. After reading this, *she* is the more interesting sister to me (and more sympathetic), even though 4-years-older Elizabeth was the first trailblazer. LOVE that Elizabeth got her medical degree at Geneva Medical School (what is now Hobart and William Smith College, and about 20 minutes from where I grew up!) but it was absolutely obnoxious and absurd that the same medical school who (grudgingly) accepted Elizabeth refused admission to Emily!! Hearing about Elizabeth’s early journey in medicine (her GLASS EYE, initial friendship/lowkey rivalry with Florence Nightingale) was so interesting. And she rented her first NYC apartment/practice on the corner of 11th street and University Place, and I was like I KNOW WHERE THAT IS! Elizabeth’s sustained internal misogyny and her refusal to recognize the feminist/early suffrage movement was completely exasperating. Just so stupid and dumb and I hated it. I had weird feelings about Elizabeth adopting a CHILD because she wanted a servant/ward/someone to help her organize her life, not because she wanted to be a parent. I got the sense that Elizabeth studied/practiced medicine out of a sense of duty, whereas Emily was inspired by clinical practice and scientific advancement, and actually loved being a physician/surgeon. Last thing: I wanted more of Emily in this book, BUT I LOVED Emily and new student/colleague/friend Elizabeth Cushier’s relationship. Elizabeth Cushier was 10 years younger, and I immediately was like GAY????? 🥰😍 Perhaps. Maybe they were just the best of friends, but I’d like to believe they were in a non-platonic relationship, and will leave you with these gems from chapter 17: “I do not know what Dr. Emily would do without her. She absolutely basks in her presence; and seems as if she had been waiting for her for a lifetime...Emily’s partnership with Elizabeth Cushier was warmed by love”

  20. 5 out of 5

    Jessica

    I found this book quite fascinating and was interested to learn more of the Blackwell sisters. I knew of Elizabeth Blackwell, but not of her sister Emily. The story took us from their beginnings straight through their lives. The author told their history and did a wonderful job interspersing journal entries and pieces of letters into the manuscript. I am personally intrigued by the journey that women took in the early days of medicine. This book is not for the faint of heart and some reader’s may I found this book quite fascinating and was interested to learn more of the Blackwell sisters. I knew of Elizabeth Blackwell, but not of her sister Emily. The story took us from their beginnings straight through their lives. The author told their history and did a wonderful job interspersing journal entries and pieces of letters into the manuscript. I am personally intrigued by the journey that women took in the early days of medicine. This book is not for the faint of heart and some reader’s may need to keep a dictionary handy because the book is a lexicon of high level phraseology that could be oft-putting to some readers. I do not see this book as a memoir that will appeal to the average reader, but rather as a more scholarly tome. The book is extremely well written and shares with the reader an in-depth look at Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell’s contribution to medicine and society in general. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is seeing the divergent paths the sisters take to promote women in medicine. While Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell was the original pioneer I personally believe that Dr. Emily Blackwell’s contribution was more far reaching. I found Dr. Emily far more interesting and relatable than her sister Elizabeth. I would recommend this book to people wishing to learn more about women in early medicine and specifically the Doctors Blackwell.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Lee

    Triumph of single-minded determination, passionate idealism, and personal sacrifice 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. Triumph of single-minded determination, passionate idealism, and personal sacrifice 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.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Sue

    Expecting to read biography, I was not disappointed that author Janice P. Nimura chronicled the barriers that Elizabeth Blackwell overcame which somewhat aided her younger sister Emily's goal to also become a medical doctor. In 1849 Elizabeth Blackwell became the first American female doctor, but she set about to study in Europe where barriers also existed that handicapped her ambition to gain more application and skill in treatment. Six years younger, Emily followed suit with encouragement from Expecting to read biography, I was not disappointed that author Janice P. Nimura chronicled the barriers that Elizabeth Blackwell overcame which somewhat aided her younger sister Emily's goal to also become a medical doctor. In 1849 Elizabeth Blackwell became the first American female doctor, but she set about to study in Europe where barriers also existed that handicapped her ambition to gain more application and skill in treatment. Six years younger, Emily followed suit with encouragement from Elizabeth and plan to establish a hospital or infirmary for women and children that eventually was realized in New York City. The sisters were born in Bristol, England and later immigrated to the United States living in a number of cities including New York and Cincinnati. The family of nine children were strongly encouraged to become educated, and it was Elizabeth's ambition to open the doors to women in medicine. Of the two sisters, Emily was considered the skilled surgeon and practitioner as Elizabeth was the advocate and theorist for women in medicine. Elizabeth, who was ahead of the time in her focus on hygiene, did not have the advantage of the "germ theory" but insisted on hand washing and cleanliness in the institutions that she and Emily started up. Elizabeth sought science over practice. She had a stern demeanor that isolated her socially although she did have female acquaintances such as with Florence Nightingale that shared her vision of advancing female education in medicine. After Emily joined Elizabeth in the New York Infirmary they hired women doctors who failed to meet the expectations of the Blackwell professional. In a few years, they opened their own Blackwell Medical School for Women where both taught but hired men to teach as well. Elizabeth who had adopted an orphan eventually left the college and returned to England. After 30 years presiding over the medical school, Emily also retired in 1899. She, too, had adopted a daughter who later married and had two children that delighted Emily. I know that I stand on the shoulders of courageous women who envisioned higher education for women and a rewarding life that needn't be limited by marriage and motherhood. I was slightly disappointed that the plucky Elizabeth after becoming naturalized returned to Europe. She was uncomfortable with an American way of life that seemed less purposeful than she liked. Elizabeth was intelligent but also a moralizer. Her body is buried in Scotland. Sister Emily is buried at the family summer retreat at Martha's Vineyard. Exception women. Inspiring and enlightening book.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Bookreporter.com Biography & Memoir

    In THE DOCTORS BLACKWELL, award-winning author Janice P. Nimura shines new light on the life and accomplishments of Elizabeth Blackwell, America’s first female physician, and equally on the achievements of her dynamic younger sister and fellow doctor, Emily. In 1857, Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell opened the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, hallmarking the first such institution in the US to be run solely by women. It was their dream made real, the opening of new doors after yea In THE DOCTORS BLACKWELL, award-winning author Janice P. Nimura shines new light on the life and accomplishments of Elizabeth Blackwell, America’s first female physician, and equally on the achievements of her dynamic younger sister and fellow doctor, Emily. In 1857, Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell opened the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, hallmarking the first such institution in the US to be run solely by women. It was their dream made real, the opening of new doors after years of ambitious, determined pushing into multiple closed systems. As Nimura explains, the sisters --- daughters of nonconforming parents who left England for the new possibilities available in America --- were brilliant and multiskilled, forced to find work when their father passed away. Both had some success as tutors, with Elizabeth driven by the belief that she should and would not be defined by her sex. For her, the field of medicine represented an alluring opportunity to assert her absolute equality with men. After being rejected by many schools, she finally found her place, excelled academically, repressed her horror at some of the duties of the profession, studied with men who both mocked and praised her, and ultimately gained her title of MD, the first American woman to do so. Emily followed Elizabeth’s lead, but from a different perspective, demonstrating more empathy for the sick and suffering, though as intelligent and broad-minded as her sister. Together the two doctors opened and managed the infirmary and assisted in establishing women’s medical colleges in the US and the UK. Nimura previously demonstrated her facility with historical research and her ability to bring the past to life in DAUGHTERS OF THE SAMURAI. In writing about the Blackwells, two dynamic but very different women, she has delved into their era’s medical practices, which seem distressingly primitive at this remove. Social mores are also examined, including issues beginning to arise at the time concerning birth control and abortion. Neither Elizabeth nor Emily, strong independent women, ever married, though Elizabeth adopted a “half sister, half daughter,” and Emily had a live-in partner. Both sisters had a vision for a better world where women could give and receive the best care and garner deserved recognition. Nimura brings their aspirations to life in a zestful chronicle that should be read and shared in discussion by modern women, lest we forget. Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott

  24. 5 out of 5

    Siena

    This was an interesting insight into the first female doctors in America, and how they reached that achievement, however, this novel fell short for me in some areas. I mostly enjoyed this novel, and the main subject of the novel, Elizabeth Blackwell, was interesting. I was a bit disappointed to learn that she wasn’t very interested in being a doctor, rather she was interested in achieving the goal. However, I did admire her determination and will in becoming a doctor, especially during the time i This was an interesting insight into the first female doctors in America, and how they reached that achievement, however, this novel fell short for me in some areas. I mostly enjoyed this novel, and the main subject of the novel, Elizabeth Blackwell, was interesting. I was a bit disappointed to learn that she wasn’t very interested in being a doctor, rather she was interested in achieving the goal. However, I did admire her determination and will in becoming a doctor, especially during the time in which she lived. I thought that her sister, Emily, was more interesting. The book focused more on Elizabeth, but it did devote some time to her sister, who was equally as determined to practice medicine. She was more interested in actually practicing medicine than her sister was, which I think also made her more intriguing. I would have liked for there to be more about her in the novel. I did like how the novel provided the family background of the Blackwells, and how this shaped the two sisters. It told of their parents’ anti-slavery work, which shaped their morality; how their father died, which caused them to become more independent at a young age, and various other events. It also told of their English origins and their immigration to America. The novel was decently researched, and there were many primary sources used throughout the novel, which I liked because it gave the reader a better understanding of the sisters as real people, and their personalities. They were included semi-frequently, and in my opinion, the author chose the right times to include them. However, I think there should have been more depth in discussing the sisters’ lives, as some parts were only briefly discussed and could have been elaborated on more. The writing was alright, it fell a bit flat for me, because it was plain and not very engaging. I thought that the most interesting part of the novel was when Elizabeth was studying to become a doctor. I found it fascinating to see how medicine was practiced then, and the practices and beliefs in medicine that would be considered absurd today. The novel discussed how Elizabeth learned medicine, and how it was customary at the time for students to learn medicine. It also showed the many roadblocks she faced both in becoming a doctor and being a doctor, from not being allowed to attended some medical schools, to not being hired because of her gender. Overall, I’m not sure I would recommend this novel, while it does discuss some interesting topics, it falls short in other areas, such as the occasional lack of depth at times and bland writing.

  25. 5 out of 5

    LB

    This book was very well researched and very well written. But I couldn't help but find it frustrating at times, mostly because of the attitudes of its subjects. No, I don't mean the vast swathes of society who didn't believe women had any place in medicine; I mean Elizabeth Blackwell (and, to a lesser extent, Emily). Elizabeth was a serious misogynist who seemed to think herself and her sisters the only worthy or intelligent women in the entire world (with only a handful of exceptions). She's the This book was very well researched and very well written. But I couldn't help but find it frustrating at times, mostly because of the attitudes of its subjects. No, I don't mean the vast swathes of society who didn't believe women had any place in medicine; I mean Elizabeth Blackwell (and, to a lesser extent, Emily). Elizabeth was a serious misogynist who seemed to think herself and her sisters the only worthy or intelligent women in the entire world (with only a handful of exceptions). She's the 19th century embodiment of "Not Like Other Girls". She constantly puts down other women (both specific women and the entire sex in general), to the point that she thinks they don't deserve political representation because they are too air headed to have serious opinions or use their voting power responsibly. She also doesn't seem to have much of a genuine interest in medicine, it was just an untapped field where she could make a name for herself as being a "first," which seems to be what was actually important to her, not helping others or advancing science. I don't know if motivations should count more than outcomes, but her egoistic drive for recognition got pretty tiring. Sure, she was the first to get a medical degree, and she helped found several institutions, but she didn't contribute much to the field of medicine (while constantly sneering at and demeaning women who actually tried to work towards advancement of the field). Emily is a much more sympathetic and likeable personality, though she shares some of Elizabeth's cynical views on women. At least she was genuinely passionate about the PRACTICE of medicine, and not just having the title of doctor. While I found a lot of their views regrettable, they were at least ahead of their time in their focus on hygiene and rejection of heroic medicine. They did help open doors and pave the way for women who proved to be a lot more capable than cynical, self-important Elizabeth would have ever given them credit for. In some ways it feels like celebrating the history of someone who ACCIDENTALLY ended up doing good for women instead of setting out to elevate the sex is problematic, but I suppose no historical figure is completely pure of motive or opinion, and I appreciate that the author fully recognizes and addresses these issues. I guess that's what makes them real, complicated people and not just symbols. Overall it was an informative and interesting read, if also a frustrating one.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Leslie Lindsay

    Thorough and impeccable history of the Blackwell sisters, their claim to fame is that they were the among the first female physicians in the U.S. THE DOCTORS BLACKWELL (W.W. Norton, January 2021) is a biographical-medical-historical account of two very enterprising young women from the rather large Blackwell family, who immigrated from England to New York and then Cincinnati. From a young age, Elizabeth Blackwell felt she was destined to be more than 'just an ordinary' woman, and though she at f Thorough and impeccable history of the Blackwell sisters, their claim to fame is that they were the among the first female physicians in the U.S. THE DOCTORS BLACKWELL (W.W. Norton, January 2021) is a biographical-medical-historical account of two very enterprising young women from the rather large Blackwell family, who immigrated from England to New York and then Cincinnati. From a young age, Elizabeth Blackwell felt she was destined to be more than 'just an ordinary' woman, and though she at first recoiled from the idea of studying medicine, that's exactly what she did. I am not sure if she did it to 'prove' something, or if there was more--and THE DOCTORS BLACKWELL does go into this a bit, but overall, it's more of a this-than-that type of read, chronicling the life of Elizabeth Blackwell, and then her younger sister, Emily, both of whom become physicians. Nimura has clearly done her homework and it shows in this impeccably researched book. However, it's pretty dry. Perhaps I was expecting something more a long the lines of historical fiction, or narrative nonfiction that reads more like fiction ala HIDDEN VALLEY ROAD (Bob Kolker) about a family experiencing schizophrenia, sprinkled with plenty of research. THE DOCTORS BLACKWELL does describe much of what was going on with with the world at large, including slavery (it's set in the 1830s and beyond), women's rights and intellect, the care of women and infants, plus, the sort of infancy of medicine and a profession. I did learn quite a bit in THE DOCTORS BLACKWELL, and having a background in nursing myself, I found this title to be fascinating, but still a bit challenging to get through. It's not just about Elizabeth and Emily, but about other, tangential characters, their impact on medicine, more. I think what I really wanted was the focus to be solely on the sisters. However, that may be close to impossible, given the scope of the book or the author's intention. Some other titles came to mind as I read--Robin Oliveria's THE WINTER SISTERS (historical fiction) as well as Sara Donati's WHERE THE LIGHT ENTERS. For all my reviews, including author interviews, please visit: www.leslielindsay.com|Always with a Book. Special thanks to the publisher for this review copy. All thoughts are my own.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Malavika

    The Doctors Blackwell Janice Nimura I heard an interview of the author on radio and was immediately drawn to the book. I had recently read a book on one of the first Indian woman doctor who had come to the US for her medical education ( Radical Spirit by Nandini Patwardhan). Since then I was curious about other women who were physicians before Anandibai Joshee who is featured in the book I read. The author has indeed researched extensively and her description gives me an idea of the life and strugg The Doctors Blackwell Janice Nimura I heard an interview of the author on radio and was immediately drawn to the book. I had recently read a book on one of the first Indian woman doctor who had come to the US for her medical education ( Radical Spirit by Nandini Patwardhan). Since then I was curious about other women who were physicians before Anandibai Joshee who is featured in the book I read. The author has indeed researched extensively and her description gives me an idea of the life and struggles women faced in the mid 19 century. The Blackwell family moved from England to the US when Elizabeth Blackwell, the older of the two sisters depicted in the book had grown up. They settled in Cincinnati. The family was upper middle class, intellectual and educated. The reason why Elizabeth was attracted to medicine, at a time when there were no colleges for female doctors is a bit unclear. Perhaps her fathers untimely death? Or a thirst for accepting challenges? Emily, the younger sister followed her older sister. The struggles of finally completing their medical education then lead to the struggle of finding work, and then gaining respect and acceptance as female physicians made a fascinating read. Many famous historical personalities- abolitionists and suffragettes make an appearance in the book. Sadly Elizabeth was not drawn to women’s causes like birth control or the vote. Emily’s stance on this is not clear. It was interesting to see how both sisters travelled to Europe for further training, both never married, and both adopted young girls from an orphanage. It is interesting to see how easily this was done. Both women are depicted as strong charactered, independent thinking and hard workers. Elizabeth’s demeanor comes across as not very empathetic, and she does not tolerate fools easily. She also starts many projects, but Emily seems to sustain them. Emily comes across as warmer and more pleasant. Being unmarried, and having strong family support was the main reason the women could achieve this. But I think if they married, it would have been to strong men who would have been suitable partners. I wondered too, if being immigrants, and having spent their developing years in England, and not in the US helped shape the sisters mind set in being determined and somewhat blind to their struggles. It certainly helped them. While I enjoyed the book, listening to the audible version was disappointing- I found the narrator robotic and boring. I am still glad I read the book, and as a female immigrant doctor myself am grateful for the Blackwell sisters contributions that has paved the way for so many women after them. Thanks to the author for bringing forth their story.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Annie

    To be published on my blog on release day: Nonstop Reader. The Doctors Blackwell is an interesting and well written biography of the Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, pioneering female physicians in the USA. Due out 19th Jan 2021 from W.W. Norton, it's 352 pages (ebook), and will be available in hardcover and ebook formats. As a healthcare professional who works in a teaching hospital, I'm regularly involved in interacting with students in labwork exercises and orientation to labwork and histolo To be published on my blog on release day: Nonstop Reader. The Doctors Blackwell is an interesting and well written biography of the Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, pioneering female physicians in the USA. Due out 19th Jan 2021 from W.W. Norton, it's 352 pages (ebook), and will be available in hardcover and ebook formats. As a healthcare professional who works in a teaching hospital, I'm regularly involved in interacting with students in labwork exercises and orientation to labwork and histology coursework. I was interested to see a few years ago that the gender distribution of incoming students has continued to be weighted more and more toward women choosing to pursue medical degrees and today, the balance has shifted to about 80% female and 20% male for the upcoming class. It's because of pioneering women like the Blackwell sisters in STEM careers that young women today have the opportunity to pursue their educational goals. At the time the Blackwell sisters were pursuing their educations, being a physician was an outlandish, almost shocking goal for females. Author Janice Nimura does a good job of conjuring the historical context and readers get a real feeling for what a monumental uphill climb they faced and how much strength, stubbornness, and grit they displayed. The book is arranged roughly chronologically with their early childhood and upbringing through their educations, travels, setbacks and successes. The author has a rather unflinching style, not covering over their rougher edges to make for a more palatable story. They were both complex women and this biography reflects that. The author has included a good bibliography (divided into primary and secondary source material), abbreviated chapter notes, and an index. Four stars. Recommended for readers who enjoy biographies, history, women's health studies, medicine, gender studies, American history, etc. Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher for review purposes.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Scott J Pearson

    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 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 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 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.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Heather Jones

    Thank you to W. W. Norton for giving me a free digital galley of this book in exchange for feedback. Well, I’ve just spent several days intermittently telling my wife interesting facts about Elizabeth Blackwell that she did not ask me for. Did you know that, although Elizabeth Blackwell is the one who is famously the first female doctor, her sister Emily was also an early doctor who worked with her? Did you know that they lived right in our hometown of Cincinnati, and although their house no longe Thank you to W. W. Norton for giving me a free digital galley of this book in exchange for feedback. Well, I’ve just spent several days intermittently telling my wife interesting facts about Elizabeth Blackwell that she did not ask me for. Did you know that, although Elizabeth Blackwell is the one who is famously the first female doctor, her sister Emily was also an early doctor who worked with her? Did you know that they lived right in our hometown of Cincinnati, and although their house no longer exists, the site where it once was is a bakery where we could have lunch? Did you know about Eclectic medicine? Did you know that Dr. Blackwell was stricken with a horrible eye ailment that threatened to ruin her career and did make her life much harder? Did you know that she took in a little Irish orphan and raised her in ways that were simultaneously sweet, ruthlessly pragmatic, and deeply dubious? Did you know what a complex and fascinating person she was, and worthy of much more of our attention than a single-sentence biography? This book is a fantastic biography of two fantastic women, and I couldn’t put it down.

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