Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in America to graduate from medical school, and her sister Emily wasn’t far behind her. They persisted in raising awareness of the need to bring female doctors into the field, even running their own medical school. But theirs was a complicated path and they were definitely complicated women.
Use our discussion guide for The Doctors Blackwell to unpack some of those complications. Our club questions for The Doctors Blackwell will help you and your group explore the sisters’ motivations, ambitions, Protestant work ethic, contradictory attitudes about women and more.
The Doctors Blackwell Synopsis
The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women and Women to Medicine, Janice P Nimura
Elizabeth Blackwell believed from an early age that she was destined for a mission beyond the scope of “ordinary” womanhood. Though the world at first recoiled at the notion of a woman studying medicine, her intelligence and intensity ultimately won her the acceptance of the male medical establishment. In 1849, she became the first woman in America to receive an M.D. She was soon joined in her iconic achievement by her younger sister, Emily, who was actually the more brilliant physician.
Exploring the sisters’ allies, enemies, and enduring partnership, Janice P. Nimura presents a story of trial and triumph. Together, the Blackwells founded the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, the first hospital staffed entirely by women. Both sisters were tenacious and visionary, but their convictions did not always align with the emergence of women’s rights―or with each other. From Bristol, Paris, and Edinburgh to the rising cities of antebellum America, this richly researched new biography celebrates two complicated pioneers who exploded the limits of possibility for women in medicine. As Elizabeth herself predicted, “a hundred years hence, women will not be what they are now.”
10 Book Club Questions for The Doctors Blackwell
- The book is an amalgam of the author’s writing and the many letters that flowed back and forth between Elizabeth, Emily, their family and their mentors. How did you respond to the writing? And how did the hybrid structure affect the book’s pacing?
- The Blackwells were from decidedly stiff Protestant stock. “…the Blackwells held deeply moral, defiantly unorthodox opinions. In this generation— and more so in the next, they practiced an ideological contrarianism striving toward a moral high ground that the placid mainstream ignored, dismissed or failed to imagine”
How did these unorthodox opinions play out in the Blackwell family?
- Medical practices in the mid-late 1800’s were underdeveloped…to put it mildly. ““Treatment was a matter of better out, than in”. And then the book goes on to state a list of shiver-inducing treatments such as lancets, leeches, diuretics, enemas, pukeweek, burning plasters of mustard and the ingestion of turpentine.
Would you have survived?
- “Elizabeth regarded women with the calm superiority of a benevolent deity…women were not her peers or her equals and she had little desire to work alongside them.”
Do you think it was possible for her to be a true pioneer, when she had such little regard for the average woman?
- Elizabeth was more interested in breaking barriers, improving women’s healthcare and getting more women into the profession as doctors. But “……caring for suffering individuals had never been the engine that drove her. In becoming a doctor, she meant to heal humanity.”
Can you think of other pioneering scientists, activists or social movers who had a similar sort of goal or attitude?
- The book talks about how Elizabeth and Emily were always living lean, from their early years and even after they had established the dispensary. But it isn’t clear how they got the money to fund their travels and European education.
Where do you suppose the money came from?
- “…the ranks of women doctors were growing, and the Blackwells could take much of the credit for showing them the way. They were not however, ready to be overtaken.” Elizabeth chose not to help Nancy Clark when she asked for the same sort of support that Elizabeth had received from some of her male mentors.
What do you suppose drove this competitive dynamic?
- Much is said in the book about how doctors of the time tested new medical techniques on the poor and especially slaves. Were you aware of this practice?
- In the end, were Elizabeth and Emily good partners?
- In an article for the Smithonian, Nimura states that…”Even in their own time, Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell often went unseen. They shone as beacons, but with a chilly light; few people drew close enough to know them intimately. It’s no accident that their story is easiest to find in the kids’ section, where their abrasive edges and questionable biases are smoothed away, where they can remain uncomplicated and inspiring.”
Why was the light so chilly? Why were they unseen?
Selected Reviews of The Doctors Blackwell
“…it also touches on a lot of what was going on in their world, nineteenth-century United States and Europe. The reader will meet many of the movers and shakers of that era and come away with a real feel for the challenges an intellectual woman faced in that time.”
“What distinguishes this book from other non-fiction historical accounts is the marriage of readability and meticulous documentation.”
Nimura starts out pretty well as a storyteller, but eventually it’s more a recounting of the facts, the sort of book where you keep waiting for something to happen, and it really doesn’t…this could have been a lively book, but instead, it fades away.”
“…I wanted a better tale. This could have been one. Rather, it was a chronology of facts, delivered very flatly. Like an FBI report…”
3 Books like The Doctors Blackwell
The Personal Librarian, Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray
This is a fictionalized account of the professional life and loves of Belle da Costa Greene. She was the curator and personal librarian for the JP Morgan library. Not only did she break into (and gain respect from) the male dominated field of antiquities and art curation, but she was also Black passing as White at a time when it was quite dangerous to do so.
Read it for book club and use our Personal Librarian discussion guide.
The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race, Walter Isaacson
If you are keen to learn about another female medical pioneer, then check out Jennifer Doudna. From 6th grade, she was passionate about science. Her passion and curiosity led her to co-discover the structure of DNA and she later won the Nobel.
Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World, Rachel Ignotofsky
Dive down the rabbit hole of other pioneering (and oft forgotten) women who made great scientific strides. This fun, illustrated book features 50 of them, who cracked the glass ceiling and broke the rules in such diverse fields as genetics, radiochemistry, programming, astronomy, entomology and on and on. This would make a great girl power book for a pre-teen who is interested in STEM.
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