Historian Nimura (
Daughters of the Samurai) probes the lives of the pioneering Blackwell sisters, Elizabeth (1821–1910) and Emily (1826–1910), in a captivating biography. The author charts the ambitious Elizabeth’s path, as she became the first woman to receive a medical degree from an American medical college, at Geneva College in 1849, and went on to further study medicine in England and work at a maternity hospital in France, where an infection cost her her left eye and, thus, surgical career. The elder Blackwell sister emerges as an impressive but intimidating figure, a rigid idealist who equated illness with moral weakness and who disdained the suffrage movement even as she did much to advance the state of women. As Emily follows in her sister’s footsteps, she is depicted more endearingly, as having a genuine interest in her patients and the “daily, steady effort of medical practice” that Elizabeth lacked. Though Emily often labored in her strong-willed sister’s shadow, she was instrumental, Nimura argues, in the success of their New York Infirmary, founded in 1857. In recounting the lives of two ambitious figures who opened doors for many who came after them, Nimura casts a thoughtful and revelatory new light onto women’s and medical history. (Jan.)
"Janice P. Nimura has gifted us with more than a splendid history of the Blackwell sisters. Gripping, vividly written, and moving, it is also a surprisingly timely history of the misogynist, limited, still evolving Anglo-American medical profession."
The Doctors Blackwell should be required reading in all medical schools, indeed for anyone who has ever consulted a doctor. This rousing story of two brilliant and determined nineteenth-century sisters is also a history of American medicine—how it was practiced and by whom. That the Blackwells arrived in the United States during a cholera epidemic and made it their mission to provide medical care to the underserved, while also promoting the twin causes of women’s rights and abolition, brings this narrative hurtling into the twenty-first century, demanding our attention today."
"Ms. Nimura’s portrait of the Blackwells’ America blazes with hallucinatory energy. It’s a rough-hewn, gaudy, carnival-barking America, with only the thinnest veneer of gentility overlaying cruelty and a simmering violence. It’s an America yearning for relief from disease, besotted with séances and spiritualism, quack cures and phrenology; a deeply divided America, with bloody fissures between rich and poor, North and South, city and countryside."
Wall Street Journal - Donna Rifkind
"All doctors and all patients owe a debt to these eccentric, determined, brilliant characters, Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, who found their way across the strange and bloody landscape of nineteenth-century medicine and transformed it forever, all brilliantly conjured in Janice P. Nimura’s wonderful book."
"Nimura writes fluidly, and her book is an engaging and meticulously documented guide not only to the sisters’ lives but also to the medical practices of their time. We hear about obsolete medical treatments (intravaginal leeches), student ingenuity (stuffing medical textbooks under clothes to avoid paying taxes) and New York trivia (the Blackwell’s infirmary on Bleecker Street was a former Roosevelt residence). But the greater part of Nimura’s achievement lies in how she brings new life to the story of two extraordinary and idiosyncratic physicians who forever changed the medical profession."
American Scholar - Danielle Ofri
"Nimura shocks and enthralls with her blunt, vivid storytelling. She draws on the writings of Elizabeth and Emily in an intimate way that makes it feel like she knew the sisters personally. Alongside glaring descriptions of culturally ingrained sexism and discrimination, the biography also touches on how our standards of medicine have changed over the decades, showing how even the most scientific of professions are subject to major culture shifts."
Discover Magazine - Jennifer Walter
"Even if you know who Elizabeth Blackwell is — the first woman to receive an MD in the United States — you may not know her sister Emily’s name. Nimura (
Daughters of the Samurai) examines Emily Blackwell’s brilliance, and how the sisters’ achievements and (at times contentious) partnership changed the landscape of American medicine for good."
Washington Post - Bethanne Patrick
"The Blackwell sisters took on the medical establishment and won. They are heroines, not just of their time, but for every age. Their incredible story has been crying out to be told, and in Janice P. Nimura they have the ideal biographer. The Blackwells live and triumph again."
"With the fiercely intelligent, prickly sisters at the center, Nimura’s engrossing and enlightening group biography is highly recommended."
Booklist (starred review) - Sara Jorgensen
"This nonfiction story of the first hospital staffed entirely by women could not be more timely."
Entertainment Weekly - Seija Rankin
Daughters of the Samurai) brings to life the fascinating histories of physicians Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, and their extended family. The Blackwell sisters both had to scrape together the training they needed to become qualified as women doctors in the 19th century, but they chose to follow different paths in their careers. Elizabeth Blackwell (1821–1910), the older sister, was the first woman in the United States to receive an MD. She later became an advocate for women in the profession as well as the field of women's health. With her sister Emily, she went on to establish the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, which is now part of NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. Emily Blackwell (1826–1910) was a compassionate practicing doctor and teacher at the hospital she cofounded. Both sisters traveled in Europe for training, further studies, and later lecturing, meeting and working with some of the well-known medical figures of the time, including Florence Nightingale. Nimura has done extensive research on her subjects, using archives, letters, contemporary writings, and secondary materials to bring their stories to life. VERDICT This book is an excellent read for those interested in the history of medicine and those who enjoy a well-written biography. —Margaret Henderson, Ramona, CA
A riveting dual biography of America’s first female physicians.
In this follow-up to
Daughters of the Samurai (2015), Nimura chronicles the lives and work of Elizabeth (1821-1910) and Emily (1826-1910) Blackwell, America’s first and third women to earn medical degrees, deftly weaving together a dramatic true story that reads like a work of historical fiction. Bright and determined, the sisters received their hard-won medical degrees a few years apart. Even though she found bodily functions “disgusting,” Elizabeth was a pioneer in the genderless pursuit of common good through education; Emily held an aligned ideology, but she became more concerned with practical medical application. Maintaining narrative momentum, Nimura packs the text with evocative, memorable vignettes—e.g., the sisters aweing entire lecture halls into stunned silence or eruptions of applause with their wit and courage, battling life-threatening illnesses, or enjoying encounters with a variety of historical figures. As different as they were alike, both sisters met seemingly insurmountable obstacles with inspiring displays of fortitude. Refreshingly, the author does not portray these women as one-dimensional figures of women’s suffrage, which they resolutely were not. Instead, she describes how both sisters often viewed women without admiration or sisterly affection. For example, she highlights how Elizabeth’s “own sympathies lay, to a surprising extent, with the men who were nonplussed by her presence [at medical school]” rather than the women she treated. Peppered with appearances from Abraham Lincoln, Florence Nightingale, Susan B. Anthony, and others, the text is a vibrant landscape that affirms the prominent place of the Blackwell sisters in medical history. Illustrating how they created and activated rich networks of supporters and sympathizers, both men and women, throughout their professional pursuits, Nimura is careful never to embellish one sister’s character at the expense of the other. As she clearly demonstrates, each possessed characteristic strengths and weaknesses.
A compellingly portrayed and vividly realized biography of triumph and trailblazing.