Summary and book reviews of The Doctors Blackwell by Janice Nimura

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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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Jan 2021, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 18, 2022, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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About this Book

Book Summary

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."

Excerpt
The Doctors Blackwell

The world knows Elizabeth Blackwell as the first woman in America to receive a medical degree, in 1849. Her sister Emily joined her in that distinction in 1854. Their achievements, including the foundation of the first hospital run by and for women, are enshrined in American history.

But in 1845, before Elizabeth became an icon, she was a bored and frustrated 24-year-old, teaching to help support her mother and eight siblings in Cincinnati. It was at this stalled moment that a terminally ill friend planted the seed of an idea. "If I could have been treated by a lady doctor," the woman confided, "my worst sufferings would have been spared me."

Elizabeth scoffed. Why would a young woman enthralled by literature and philosophy suddenly apply her considerable ambition to what was, essentially, still a trade—and not even a lucrative one? Not to mention there was no such thing as a female physician, at least in any honorable sense. Women who claimed that...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Which sister, Elizabeth or Emily, resonated more strongly with you? Why?
  2. None of the five Blackwell sisters married, while their brothers chose strikingly independent women as partners. Why do you think this was?
  3. What were the origins of Elizabeth's interest in the newborn field of public health?
  4. How did Emily's ideas about the role of a female physician diverge from Elizabeth's?
  5. How did the Blackwell sisters feel about women's rights, or other women in general?
  6. Nineteenth-century medicine looked very different from modern practice, but like today the pace of innovation was rapid. What did you find most startling about the Blackwells' medical training—and which of our techniques will seem quaint or barbaric in the future?
  7. The Blackwells ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

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 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...continued

Full Review Members Only (662 words).

(Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

Media Reviews

Washington Post
Nimura often sidesteps details of the Blackwells’ private lives and at times presents too much information, particularly about their clothing and residences. Despite the periodic narrative detours, the book moves at a lively pace...[A] smart double biography.

New York Times
A culture that valorizes heroes insists on consistency, and the Blackwell sisters liked to see themselves as unwavering stewards of lofty ideals. But Nimura, by digging into their deeds and their lives, finds those discrepancies and idiosyncrasies that yield a memorable portrait. The Doctors Blackwell also opens up a sense of possibility — you don’t always have to mean well on all fronts in order to do a lot of good.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
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.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
[R]iveting...Nimura is careful never to embellish one sister's character at the expense of the other. As she clearly demonstrates, each possessed characteristic strengths and weaknesses. A compellingly portrayed and vividly realized biography of triumph and trailblazing.

Booklist (starred review)
With the fiercely intelligent, prickly sisters at the center, Nimura's engrossing and enlightening group biography is highly recommended.

Library Journal (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.

Author Blurb Danielle Ofri, American Scholar
Nimura writes fluidly, and her book is an engaging and meticulously documented guide not only to the sisters' lives but also to the medical practices of their time. We hear about obsolete medical treatments (intravaginal leeches), student ingenuity (stuffing medical textbooks under clothes to avoid paying taxes) and New York trivia (the Blackwell's infirmary on Bleecker Street was a former Roosevelt residence). But the greater part of Nimura's achievement lies in how she brings new life to the story of two extraordinary and idiosyncratic physicians who forever changed the medical profession.

Author Blurb Megan Marshall, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Margaret Fuller: A New American Life
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.

Author Blurb Perri Klass, author of A Good Time to Be Born
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.

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Beyond the Book

Leeches in Medicine

The Doctors Blackwell, Janice P. Nimura's biography of Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, explores the tools 19th-century physicians used to address their patients' needs. Many common ailments were believed to be caused by an excess of blood, and consequently removing some of a person's blood was thought to be efficacious; often doctors employed leeches for this purpose.

Most people have a passing familiarity with the leech — a slimy little invertebrate that attaches itself to a living body and obtains nourishment by sucking its host's blood. The leech is actually considered a segmented worm, and there are over 650 different species of them, living both on land and in water. On average, they range in size from under half an inch to 8 ...

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