In 1857 Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell threw open the doors to the New York Infirmary for Women and Children at 58 Bleecker Street, revolutionary as being the first hospital in the world to employ an all-female staff.
We rightly see this today as a major stride in the rights of women as medical professionals and a breakthrough for treating the medical issues of women with forward-thinking understanding.
But the Blackwell sisters were not feminists (in the way we might understand that phrase today) and their journeys to becoming early health care pioneers were certainly not conventional.
The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women and Women to Medicine
Janice P. Nimura
WW Norton & Company
In The Doctors Blackwell — a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Biography — Janice P. Nimura illuminates the lives of two important women whose rich personal adventures have gotten lost in the shadow of their legacies.
Elizabeth was the first woman in the United States to earn a medical degree and that experience alone made her a celebrity. The only woman in operating theaters and classrooms, she didn’t consider herself a standard-bearer for all women but an example of what a woman could do when highly educated.
“Through Elizabeth was undoubtedly a reformer and a lady,” writes Nimura, “she placed herself in a separate category. She sympathized with the general goals of the women’s movement, but she chuckled dismissively at its tactics.”
(Her brothers would eventually marry two leading women’s rights leaders — Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown. On those occasional times the family sat around the dinner table together, conversations must have been fascinating.)
Emily’s novel journey to a medical degree was more difficult; the spectacle of Elizabeth’s appearance at all-male schools made institutions (and their faculties) wary of the attention and distraction. Both sisters initially rejected ideas of separate women’s medical schools. (Although eventually they would found one themselves in New York.)
The medical landscape in New York for professional women in the 1850s was virtually nonexistent. Nimura writes, “In 1851 the term female physician meant something quite different from ‘woman with a medical degree’. For most New Yorkers, it meant one person: [notorious abortionist] Madame Restell.“
There was also the esteemed J. Marion Sims, the so-called father of gynecology. (He is no longer esteemed today.) By 1855 he established a Women’s Hospital, staffed mostly by men with a purely symbolic list of prominent women as managers.
“Half are doctors’ wives, the stiffest of the stiff,” Elizabeth remarked, one of dozens of passages Nimura highlights which reveals her subject’s sharp, sometimes exasperated thoughts.
By the time Elizabeth and Emily open the infirmary (with Polish physician Marie Zakrzewska, who deserves her own book one day), Nimura has masterfully laid out the specific challenges of being a professional woman in America in the 1850s.
And more importantly, she has salvaged their voices and beautifully staged their lives in one of the most enjoyable biographies of the past few years.