In 1849 Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman in America to receive an M.D. Her achievement made her an icon, but her sister Emily, was the more brilliant physician. Together they founded the first hospital staffed entirely by women in New York City.
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 ... 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 [...] recounted another narrative of women’s education and emancipation — offers something stranger and more absorbing ... 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.
... richly detailed and propulsive ... Elizabeth is a striking figure, and Emily, self-doubting and hardworking, never quite gets clear of her shadow. To her credit, Nimura...doesn’t strain to fit the sisters into the narrow shape allowed to feminist pioneers, as either virtuous role models or 'badass' rebels against society. Instead, they emerge as spiky, complicated human beings, who strove and stumbled toward an extraordinary achievement, and then had to learn what to do with it.
Ms. Nimura places the stubborn, brilliant Blackwell sisters in an America that seems both utterly foreign and jarringly familiar, and she does so at a moment when we’re forced to confront the limitations of the medical orthodoxies and public-health initiatives of our time ... Ms. Nimura’s chronicle of the loneliness of the Blackwells’ path, made harder by their habitual unwillingness to compromise or accommodate, is enormously affecting. As in this author’s previous book, she is wonderfully attentive to nuances and contradictions, noting Elizabeth’s internalized misogyny as she deplored the silliness of women and aligned herself with men ... Small, memorable details pop up throughout the book...Yet it’s the largeness of this story that most impresses. It ranges through European capitals and many American cities during a time when travel was arduous and slow. Along the way, encounters with a surprising number of notable figures emerge ... 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 ... fits as a vivid echo of our own America, suspended as we are in another feverish moment of both crisis and opportunity.