Janice P. Nimura
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The Doctors Blackwell: How two pioneering sisters brought medicine to women--and women to medicine
Nimura, JaniceLast Updated: Feb-19-2021
- Martel, Rachel
Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction
The Doctors Blackwell begins with an account of an auspicious new beginning—the opening of The New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, the first women’s hospital staffed by female physicians. Founded in 1857 in New York City by Drs. Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell with the express purpose of providing clinical experience to female physicians, the hospital was a landmark achievement in the long struggle for parity in medical training. The Doctors Blackwell goes on to trace the history of the institution and of its two founders, themselves trailblazing members of the medical profession as the first and third women to earn medical degrees in the United States.
Two of nine children born to abolitionist, Protestant dissenters in Bristol England, Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell were the recipients of a strict moral upbringing. While successful in instilling the values of education and hard work, their childhood also left them socially awkward and with the sense that they were both morally and intellectually superior to those outside of their family. When the Blackwells emigrated to New York City in 1832 and then on to Cincinnati in 1838, their social circles were confined to religious and abolitionist advocacy. Yet soon after the family arrived in Cincinnati their lives were upended by the passing of their father, Samuel Blackwell. With their mother and six siblings to support, the three eldest Blackwell daughters-- Anna, Marian, and Elizabeth-- took up teaching until their younger brothers were old enough to support the family.
Elizabeth, morally principled to a fault, studious, and determined to succeed intellectually, found teaching to be an unfulfilling means of channeling her energies. Having forsworn marriage at the age of 17, she longed for something challenging and admirable upon which to focus her formidable intelligence. When a dying friend suggested that she become a physician, because she herself would have appreciated a female doctor tending to her disease, Elizabeth’s interest was piqued. Yet her attraction to medicine was rooted not in a desire to help the ailing (indeed she viewed illness as a form of weakness), but in an ideological quest to prove that women were capable of achieving the same distinctions as any man. She saw herself as a moral crusader with the goal of uplifting all of womankind.
Beginning in 1844, Elizabeth leveraged her teaching connections to gain the backing of several prominent male physicians. Yet the all-male world of medicine remained stubbornly closed to her, and it wasn’t until 1847 that she was admitted to the Geneva Medical College in upstate New York, an event that caused a stir in the medical community and beyond. Isolated both from her male classmates and from laypeople, who viewed her at best as an oddity and at worst as a dangerous anomaly, Elizabeth nonetheless became a figure equally admired and reviled by the public. Her reputation as the first “lady doctor” preceded her, even as she gained the respect and admiration of the faculty at Geneva College and distinguished herself with additional training in Europe.
Meanwhile, the trials of Emily Blackwell, whom Elizabeth encouraged to follow in her footsteps, illustrated that far from breaking down the doors that barred women from medicine, Elizabeth’s admittance may only have served to seal them more tightly. Elizabeth was viewed as a notable exception to the general rule that women were unfit to practice medicine, and her male colleagues were uneasy at the thought of being replaced. But after a prolonged struggle, Emily succeeded in obtaining her medical degree from Cleveland Medical College and joined Elizabeth to hang up her shingle in New York City.
Increasingly frustrated by the difficulty in recruiting private patients to be seen by female physicians and by the dearth of clinical opportunities for the growing number of women in the field, Elizabeth and Emily opened their own hospital and medical school with the help of female philanthropists. Elizabeth’s philosophical zeal combined with Emily’s true love and aptitude for medicine proved to be a dynamic combination. Their contributions to the field not only changed the way that medicine is practiced, but also paved the way for generations of female physicians. Today, just over fifty percent of the nation’s medical students can trace their acceptance into the profession to the dogged determination of these two extraordinary women.