Louisville Medicine Volume 69, Issue 8 - Page 17

REVIEWED BY M . Saleem Seyal , MD , FACC , FACP


REVIEWED BY M . Saleem Seyal , MD , FACC , FACP
“ From towns and cities , we are frequently receiving the inquiry , ‘ Can you not send us a reliable lady physician ?” - Ann Preston , MD ( 1813-1872 ), First woman Dean of Woman ’ s Medical College of Pennsylvania

This fascinating book by historian Janice Nimura is a dual biography of two pioneering sisters , Dr . Elizabeth Blackwell ( 1821-1910 ) and Dr . Emily Blackwell ( 1826-1910 ), who were the first and third woman physicians receiving their coveted and bona fide MD degrees from U . S . medical schools in 1849 and 1853 , respectively . These two extraordinary sisters were the trail-blazers who opened the doors for the future generations of women physicians in the U . S . and beyond .

Until the middle of the19 th century , no women in American society were allowed to be granted medical degrees and a vigorous debate persisted concerning the “ mental and physical suitability ” of women to practice medicine alongside the dominant male cohort . By 1910 when both sisters passed away , there were 9,000 women physicians ( about 6 % of total ), while today 35 % of physicians in the U . S . are women and the proportion of female medical students is a whopping 50 %. This is in sharp contrast to the social milieu of the country in the mid 19 th century where women ’ s sphere was the unending abyss of domesticity , discrimination , misogyny , sexism and rejection . Destroying the iron grip of patriarchy was an uphill battle at the time and most certainly was formidable in scope , but the Blackwell sisters triumphed splendidly .
The Blackwell family hailed from Bristol , England . The patriarch , Samuel Blackwell , owned a sugar refinery which burnt to the ground and the family ’ s fortunes changed for the worst almost overnight . They sold everything and left in 1832 with a large family including nine surviving children and settled in New York , then in New Jersey and eventually in Cincinnati , where Samuel wanted to start a sugar refinery using beets rather than the sugarcane , thus avoiding the slave labor-produced Caribbean product . Samuel
was a religious dissenter , a political reformer and an abolitionist . Samuel passed away unexpectedly , however , leaving the family in a dire financial state . Siblings helped one another and pitched in to pull the family through hard times . The Blackwell siblings were unconventional and non-conformists and wrote pithy letters to one another throughout their lives .
Elizabeth takes center stage in the book . She earnestly wished to become a physician . Although dissuaded by multiple parties , she painstakingly pursued paths for getting into a medical school , including apprenticeships in Ashville , North Carolina , Charleston , South Carolina and Philadelphia , Pennsylvania . Harriet Beecher Stowe , the American abolitionist author of Uncle Tom ’ s Cabin ( 1951 ), discouraged her medical ambitions because of the anticipated formidable obstacles . On the other hand , Emma Willard ( 1787-1870 ), who founded the first school for women ’ s higher education in Troy , New York , encouraged her to become a physician and helped procure a medical apprenticeship for her in Philadelphia . There were persistent and recurrent rejections from deans and professors of most medical schools ; some actively rejected her , others laughed at her face for considering the unthinkable and very few encouraged her . The pervasive sexism and discrimination were daunting obstacles . Despite hostile medical terrain , she eventually received her coveted admission at Geneva Medical College in upstate New York after the dean jokingly had the male students vote on whether to admit her . Unbeknownst to Elizabeth that she was admitted as a prank , she had iron determination and delved into her studies whole-heartedly . She received her MD degree in two years in 1849 at the top of her class and made history . Regrettably , there would be no further female medical students admitted to Geneva after Elizabeth ’ s graduation .
Despite many rejections from many medical schools , Emily Blackwell persisted in her determined quest for admission . She was
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