The Doctors Blackwell by Janice P. Nimura (History)

This is the story about Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell — pioneers in the efforts to bring women into medicine — and it was not what I expected (it was so much better!) The well-researched book (which includes many direct excerpts from journals and letters) is a thorough biography of both women from their immigrant childhood in Cincinnati through to the fight to be able to attend medical school (Elizabeth was the first woman in American to receive an MD in 1849) and their continuing efforts to open the field to women.

What I liked about the book is that it was no Hallmark Special. These women were motivated by female accomplishment, not by the more “womanly” desires to help and comfort. In fact, neither one had much in the way of empathy — Elizabeth was disgusted by human bodies and managed to take meticulous notes on patient’s dying agonies while Emily was attracted by the science, but not the humans. Elizabeth was also none too happy with the women’s movement, or with women in general, finding most of them “petty, trifling, priest-ridden, gossiping, stupid, and inane.” You can kind of see her point at times. As an interesting side note, none of the five Blackwell sisters ever married, and two of their brothers married suffragettes.

The other utterly fascinating thing about the book was the detail on medical practice, hygiene, and general living conditions of the time. The details of how medical schools operated, what kind of medicine was practiced (leeches, patent medicines, and an overuse of mercury based calomel), and the (lack of) hygiene in both medical and living situations was a window into another world — and a world not well represented by historical fiction which always seems to bring a modern sensibility to a few stray details from the past. I’m not a big non-fiction reader, finding most offerings full of tangents, muddied presentation and overly interpreted facts with specific agendas in mind, but this book was well-structured, full of relevant detail, and presented the main characters as real human beings who don’t necessarily match our ideals of individuals now or in the past.

A new (to me) word: valetudinarian — a person who is unduly anxious about their health. Useful!

Quotes:
“The limited goal of woman suffrage — winning the vote for women who were still enslaved by their own ignorance — was, she believed, woefully premature. What good was a vote if one didn’t know how to think independently?”

“The problem was not the tyranny of men, she wrote, but the disappointing weakness of women. ‘Women are feeble, narrow, frivolous at present, ignorant of their own capacities, and undeveloped in thought and feeling,’ she lectured her well-wisher. ‘The exclusion and constraint woman suffers, is not the result of purposed injury or premeditated insult. It has arisen naturally, without violence, simply because woman has desired nothing more.’”

“It was more important to prove the capacities of women and show them the way forward into the light, out of the shadow of their menfolk. For women, just as for the enslaved, the first step must be freedom. ‘The study and practice of medicine is in my thought but one means to a great end,’ Elizabeth wrote. Caring for suffering individuals had never been the engine that drove her. In becoming a doctor, she meant to heal humanity.”

“ ‘As I learnt to realize slavery & hate it, deeply eternally, while living amongst slaves — so I am learning to curse from the bottom of my soul this heathenish society of the nineteenth century, surrounded here by its miserable victims,’ she wrote. The conundrum of woman’s lot had never seemed clearer: women could not rise until the attitudes of their society shifted, but social mores would never change without women’s leadership, ‘so there seems to me, no opening in the circle.’ Even among the educated women of her acquaintance, few seemed formed for noble causes.”