BookBrowse Reviews The Doctors Blackwell by Janice P. Nimura

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The Doctors Blackwell

How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women and Women to Medicine

by Janice P. Nimura

The Doctors Blackwell by Janice P. Nimura X
The Doctors Blackwell by Janice P. Nimura
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2021, 336 pages

    Jan 2022, 352 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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About this Book



A stirring dual biography reveals the lives of two influential sisters at the dawn of modern medical science.

In The Doctors Blackwell, Janice P. Nimura paints a vivid picture of sisters Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell as they navigate uncharted territory to become the first women in the United States to obtain medical degrees. The author follows the globetrotting pair as they train in England, Scotland and France, and then go on to improve medical training for women by founding an infirmary and a women's medical college in New York, overcoming all obstacles placed in their paths.

The Blackwells immigrated to the United States from England in 1832, settling in Cincinnati, Ohio. Elizabeth, born in 1821, was the third of nine children, and Nimura's account primarily follows this remarkable woman as she embarks on the career for which she feels eminently suited – that of a medical doctor – in spite of the fact that in the mid-19th century no female had obtained a medical degree in the United States. The author deftly captures the people and events in the young Elizabeth's life that led her to confidently undertake such an intrepid professional journey, as well as how this bold woman was viewed by those she encountered. In Nimura's hands, Elizabeth's personality leaps off the page, letting readers feel her joys, sorrows and frustrations even as they come to understand that she wasn't necessarily a likable or empathetic person. These details only make her success seem all the more extraordinary.

Less well-defined is Emily, who also bucked societal norms to follow her elder sister into the medical field. While one might assume that Elizabeth's trailblazing made Emily's path easier, she seems to have faced the same obstacles in her search for professional training.

Nimura takes great pains to illustrate the state of medicine when the Blackwells were studying. She points out that "physician" wasn't considered an estimable profession at the time; in fact, most healers, particularly those in the frontier towns of the United States, were nothing more than quacks, using guesswork and dubious concoctions of their own devising to treat those who were ailing. Anesthetics had only recently been discovered and weren't in wide use, no one knew what caused the most common illnesses of the day (cholera, typhus, malaria and puerperal fever), and antiseptics wouldn't be proposed until the second half of the century. Her descriptions of common medical practices at this time, like the use of leeches to "cure" disease (see Beyond the Book), are both fascinating and horrifying. In addition, the author explores social context by explaining the schools of thought that influenced and impacted the sisters, such as abolitionism, the nascent women's rights movement and transcendentalism.

I enjoyed reading about the lives and times of the Blackwell sisters, but found my interest waning in the middle of the book as Emily's story began to emerge more fully. Many of the problems she encountered were so similar to Elizabeth's that it felt repetitive. Adding to that, the author was able to locate Elizabeth's journals, so her thoughts and attitudes were well-documented; that level of detail seems to have been unavailable for Emily, giving her less depth. The narrative pace picks up toward the book's final few chapters, but the book ends rather abruptly with Elizabeth's return to England in 1869. Both women died in 1910, and although the author includes some information about the intervening years, I would have liked to know more about how the sisters spent the rest of their lives and how their efforts influenced medical practices in subsequent decades.

Still, in this age of narrative nonfiction in which the writing tends toward purple prose, it was something of a nice change to read a traditional biography — a chronological account of two little-known yet admirable women set against an interesting historical backdrop. The Doctors Blackwell is recommended for readers who enjoy biographies, history, and books about trailblazing women. Reading groups will also find many good topics of conversation here, particularly about women who successfully defy gender roles and about the evolution of modern medicine.

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in March 2021, and has been updated for the February 2022 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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Beyond the Book:
  Leeches in Medicine


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