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Two Sisters Who Changed the Medical Profession

Elizabeth proved herself to be an assiduous and determined student. She traveled to Europe to gain practical experience, and continued to work even after losing an to eye an excruciating bout of gonorrheal conjunctivitis, which she had contracted on the job. She would speak derisively about “the hideousness of modern fornication,” and seemed to find the body distasteful, if not disgusting. As far as Nimura can tell from her subject’s diaries and letters, Elizabeth would remain forever faithful to the celibacy vow she made when she signed a temperance pledge, at 17.

Emily followed her sister’s example and instruction, becoming the workhorse practitioner alongside the high-minded Elizabeth. “The Doctors Blackwell” presents Elizabeth in full, and gives Emily her due. The sisters were entering a profession in flux. In the mid-1800s, the germ theory of disease had yet to be accepted as orthodoxy. The first half of the century was a time of “heroic medicine,” when more traditional forms of healing and long-term care were marginalized by doctors fixated on short-term cures — treatments that were often painful and dangerous, and of dubious efficacy.

The sisters were pragmatic physicians. Even the supremely confident Elizabeth approached her work with a sense of curiosity and a willingness to keep in mind what was known and what wasn’t. Again, she saw herself as standing apart. Through careful observation, she wanted to obtain “that bedside knowledge of sickness, which will enable me to commit heresy with intelligence in the future.”

Their pragmatic impulses also pushed them to open their infirmary in Manhattan and, later, the accompanying women’s medical college. Elizabeth and Emily saw a need for women doctors, who in turn had a need for clinical training and experience. Neither sister had much use for the idea of solidarity, and Elizabeth blamed women for their plight in a patriarchal society. “Women are feeble, narrow, frivolous at present, ignorant of their own capacities,” she complained. Rigorous medical training would help women do as she and Emily had already done: embark on a life of accomplishment by embracing a meritocratic ideal. On the subject of “woman’s rights,” Elizabeth was disdainful, insisting the movement was “anti-man.”

A culture that valorizes heroes insists on consistency, and the Blackwell sisters liked to see themselves as unwavering stewards of lofty ideals. But Nimura, by digging into their deeds and their lives, finds those discrepancies and idiosyncrasies that yield a memorable portrait. “The Doctors Blackwell” also opens up a sense of possibility — you don’t always have to mean well on all fronts in order to do a lot of good.

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