Two Sisters Who Changed the Medical Profession

Jennifer Szalai in The New York Times:

It’s tempting to presume a clear line between intention and accomplishment, but Janice P. Nimura, in her enthralling new book, “The Doctors Blackwell,” tells the story of two sisters who became feminist figures almost in spite of themselves. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States, in 1849, and she later enlisted her younger sister Emily to join her. Together they ran the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children and founded a women’s medical college — even though, as Nimura puts it, opening a separate school for women was just about the last thing they had planned to do.

The Blackwell sisters had initially cast themselves as exceptions, seemingly content to be the only women allowed into the room. Their temperaments were decidedly different: Elizabeth was self-assured and occasionally grandiose; Emily was quieter and more methodical, though her apparent equipoise concealed an inner turmoil. They treated the women in their care with sympathy, but empathy — the sense that they inhabited the same ordinary plane as their patients, or even other women — seemed mostly to elude them. Elizabeth, especially, would rhapsodize about humanity in the abstract, even as actual experiences of clinical intimacy could unnerve her. “I feel neither love nor pity for men, for individuals,” she declared as a young doctor, in a letter to one of her brothers. “But I have boundless love & faith in Man, and will work for the race day and night.”

The broad outlines of their lives could have made for a salutary tale about the formidable achievements of pioneering women; instead, Nimura — a gifted storyteller whose previous book, “Daughters of the Samurai,” recounted another narrative of women’s education and emancipation — offers something stranger and more absorbing. She begins with her subjects’ early lives in Bristol, where their father, a sugar refiner, introduced his young children to antislavery politics. Samuel Blackwell’s eight British-born offspring — a ninth would be born after they immigrated to the United States — “grew strong on a diet of nature, literature and political consciousness,” Nimura writes.

More here.