Book Reviews - Winter 2021

Redefining Women’s Work

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The relief of suffering was one means to a great end

By Danielle Ofri | December 7, 2020
An 1870 newspaper illustration of Elizabeth Blackwell giving a lecture at the Woman’s Medical College of New York Infirmary. (Library of Congress)
An 1870 newspaper illustration of Elizabeth Blackwell giving a lecture at the Woman’s Medical College of New York Infirmary. (Library of Congress)

The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women—and Women to Medicine by Janice P. Nimura; Norton, 336 pp., $27.95

Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in America to earn a medical degree, is an icon. But for most of us in medicine, she is only that. Few people today know much about what she actually did, and fewer are even aware of her younger sister Emily, by far the more accomplished clinician. Janice P. Nimura, in her new book, The Doctors Blackwell, aims to give both doctors their proper due.

The Blackwell clan—two parents, nine children, four “starveling aunts”—originated in Bristol, England, and migrated to the United States after the father, Samuel Blackwell, lost his sugar refinery business in a conflagration. The family lived in New York City but later relocated to Cincinnati. Samuel and his wife, Hannah Lane, were active abolitionists but defined themselves more broadly as ideological contrarians, “striving toward a moral high ground,” Nimura writes, “that the placid mainstream ignored, dismissed, or failed to imagine.” Elizabeth spent her entire life in these “isolated and inhospitable heights,” achieving what she thought was right, but often disdainful of others. Inhabiting those inhospitable Blackwell heights required a fierce work ethic, a rejection of material pleasures, political engagement, and most important, an intense focus on education. The Blackwell children had few friends and few clothes but plenty of books, intellectual stimulation, and moral instruction.

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