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The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women and Women to Medicine Hardcover – January 19, 2021
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New York Times Bestseller
"Janice P. Nimura has resurrected Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell in all their feisty, thrilling, trailblazing splendor." ―Stacy Schiff
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."28 illustrations
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― Danielle Ofri, American Scholar
"This nonfiction story of the first hospital staffed entirely by women could not be more timely."
― Seija Rankin, Entertainment Weekly
"A riveting dual biography of America’s first female physicians...A compellingly portrayed and vividly realized biography of triumph and trailblazing."
― Kirkus (starred review)
"Janice P. Nimura has gifted us with more than a splendid history of the Blackwell sisters. Gripping, vividly written, and moving, it is also a surprisingly timely history of the misogynist, limited, still evolving Anglo-American medical profession."
― Blanche Wiesen Cook, author of Eleanor Roosevelt: Volumes 1–3
"Nimura shocks and enthralls with her blunt, vivid storytelling. She draws on the writings of Elizabeth and Emily in an intimate way that makes it feel like she knew the sisters personally. Alongside glaring descriptions of culturally ingrained sexism and discrimination, the biography also touches on how our standards of medicine have changed over the decades, showing how even the most scientific of professions are subject to major culture shifts."
― Jennifer Walter, Discover Magazine
"Ms. Nimura’s portrait of the Blackwells’ America blazes with hallucinatory energy. It’s a rough-hewn, gaudy, carnival-barking America, with only the thinnest veneer of gentility overlaying cruelty and a simmering violence. It’s an America yearning for relief from disease, besotted with séances and spiritualism, quack cures and phrenology; a deeply divided America, with bloody fissures between rich and poor, North and South, city and countryside."
― Donna Rifkind, Wall Street Journal
"The Doctors Blackwell should be required reading in all medical schools, indeed for anyone who has ever consulted a doctor. This rousing story of two brilliant and determined nineteenth-century sisters is also a history of American medicine―how it was practiced and by whom. That the Blackwells arrived in the United States during a cholera epidemic and made it their mission to provide medical care to the underserved, while also promoting the twin causes of women’s rights and abolition, brings this narrative hurtling into the twenty-first century, demanding our attention today."
― Megan Marshall, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Margaret Fuller: A New American Life
"A captivating biography...In recounting the lives of two ambitious figures who opened doors for many who came after them, Nimura casts a thoughtful and revelatory new light onto women’s and medical history."
― Publisher's Weekly (starred review)
"All doctors and all patients owe a debt to these eccentric, determined, brilliant characters, Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, who found their way across the strange and bloody landscape of nineteenth-century medicine and transformed it forever, all brilliantly conjured in Janice P. Nimura’s wonderful book."
― Perri Klass, author of A Good Time to Be Born
"Even if you know who Elizabeth Blackwell is ― the first woman to receive an MD in the United States ― you may not know her sister Emily’s name. Nimura (Daughters of the Samurai) examines Emily Blackwell’s brilliance, and how the sisters’ achievements and (at times contentious) partnership changed the landscape of American medicine for good."
― Bethanne Patrick, Washington Post
"The Blackwell sisters took on the medical establishment and won. They are heroines, not just of their time, but for every age. Their incredible story has been crying out to be told, and in Janice P. Nimura they have the ideal biographer. The Blackwells live and triumph again."
― Amanda Foreman, author of A World on Fire
"With the fiercely intelligent, prickly sisters at the center, Nimura’s engrossing and enlightening group biography is highly recommended."
― Sara Jorgensen, Booklist (starred review)
"Nimura has done extensive research on her subjects, using archives, letters, contemporary writings, and secondary materials to bring their stories to life... This book is an excellent read for those interested in the history of medicine and those who enjoy a well-written biography."
― Library Journal (starred review)
About the Author
- Publisher : W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition (January 19, 2021)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 336 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0393635546
- ISBN-13 : 978-0393635546
- Item Weight : 1.3 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.3 x 1.2 x 9.4 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #139,358 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
Reviewed in the United States on February 11, 2021
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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.
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.