Author: Nancy Kline
This biography is an inspiring celebration of the vision and fortitude of one woman who, without any precedent, set out in pursuit of a lofty, and at the time a never previously attained, ambition. The book recaptures the atmosphere of the 1800’s when medicine was the exclusive preserve of men, and it recreates the tensions that one woman’s courage and determination to take her rightful place in its bastion evoked. The author skilfully charted Elizabeth Blackwell’s biography, threading together how her fascinating family history and equally inspiring personality empowered her to conceive the unthinkable, and to achieve the impossible. Her indomitable character comes strongly through the narrative which portrayed how she overcame the social and professional odds that were heavily stacked against the attainment of her goal. The author eloquently demonstrated how becoming the first qualified woman doctor inspired other women ‘to break into the medical field’. In this way, the book is a reminder of the debt medicine owes Blackwell – the dramatic smashing of a centuries-old barrier that had kept half the world’s population from aspiring to the noblest human profession (pages 174-175).
The vivid portrait of Blackwell the author paints captures the elements in her character and background that enabled her to envision and embark on such a daunting enterprise. For example, the author noted that as the 4th of 10 children growing up in Bristol, England, she was ‘more stubborn‘ than all her siblings ‘put together’, and that she was a perfectionist who was ‘perpetually honing her skills‘. There were also indications of the steely determination that enabled her to break the medical gender ceiling in the strict methodist family upbringing she had. Whilst the author described her family as one ‘steeped in religion‘, it nevertheless noted that it had very liberal attitudes towards social, educational and gender reforms, and her parents emphasised the value of personal responsibility. This reform streak also showed in the family’s strong commitment to the anti-slavery movement when it relocated to America, the author asserting that even as a teenager Blackwell ‘longed to do something for the suffering slave‘ (pages 3-4, 8 and 20-23).
Just as Blackwell’s family values shaped her determined constitution, so also did the adversities she and her family faced which the author said they tackled imaginatively and practically, emerging stronger after every misfortune. Among the string of tragedies the family weathered was the fire that gutted her father’s uninsured refinery during the Great Depression, an event that was followed shortly by his terminal illness. Plunged into poverty, and with the male sons leaving to look for jobs, the author described how ‘the responsibility for supporting the family would rest squarely on the shoulders of five women‘. Indeed the author pointed out that seventeen year old Blackwell, being the oldest child left at home, was forced to ‘take charge‘ with ‘no one to count on but herself’. The book explored the different innovative ways by which the family survived – from establishing a successful school to taking in boarders. The book made it clear that this and other similar challenges contributed to the development of her sense of self-sufficiency, drive, resourcefulness and survival skills. These experiences, the author added, created ‘the alchemy‘ which ‘made her look strong, stern, and most self-confident in those moments when she was most afraid’ – a trait the author said ‘would be crucial to her in the years ahead’ (pages 25-26, 33-34, 37-40 and 44).
Blackwell’s interest in medicine was formed on the background of what the author referred to as an incessant yearning for ‘some larger purpose‘ to apply ‘her brain, her heart, her new strength, her old obstinacy‘. And the surprising seminal event the author identified as setting her on the path of studying medicine was the offhand remark of a dying friend that a woman doctor would have approached her suffering better; once implanted, the author remarked, this idea ‘haunted her‘ and ‘would not go away’. The book also suggested that Blackwell’s decision to become a doctor was facilitated by her antipathy to the idea of matrimony, and her hope that medicine, ‘the hardest of all the professions’, would become ‘the wall she would build against falling in love‘. The book narrated how, against the advice of her discouraging friends, ‘she dug her heels in deeper’ and committed herself to the goal of becoming a doctor at a time when ‘women did not study medicine’. As a sign of her fastidiousness, the author pointed out that Blackwell, from the start, was determined not take the easier route of becoming a ‘marginalized sectarian doctor’, but was set on training to become an orthodox doctor in ‘a mainstream medical college’ (pages 54-63).
Although Blackwell’s determination to study medicine was firm, so would be the opposition she would face in achieving her goal. Just as the narrative, characterised by high expectations and dashed hopes, described the hard work she put in to enable her enrol in a medical school, it also portrayed her repeated failures to get sponsors to facilitate this. The author asserted that this was sometimes on account of ‘outright opposition to the idea of a woman studying medicine’, a hostility she illustrated with the observation that all the medical schools in Philadelphia, and later in New York, ‘turned her down‘ even after two physicians became her medical sponsors. It is similarly telling that the school that finally accepted her, Geneva Medical College in New York, did so inadvertently, the author describing how the student body scuttled its sophisticated plan to keep her out. Whilst the author said Blackwell’s triumph ‘lit up the sky of woman’s rights, inspiring other women to apply to medical school’, it was disheartening but not surprising that the school shut its doors to women once again after Blackwell slid in. The book charted Blackwell’s journey through medical school, noting how her presence at first discomfited students and teachers alike; how she won over the students by being cheerful, circumspect, dignified, smart, and serious; how ‘she worked like the driven young woman she was’; and how she fittingly ‘graduated at the head of her class‘ (pages 63-88 and 97).
As expected, Blackwell’s challenges did not end with graduation, and the book detailed the impediments and misfortunes she had to overcome in her career as a doctor. Symbolic of these was perhaps the disappointment of not having the opportunity to gain clinical experience as ‘she would most likely not be allowed into any hospital’. This was why, she author said, Blackwell travelled to Paris to work in a government-run maternity hospital where she ‘witnessed operations, assisted at births, attended lectures, observed cases, and wrote up treatments‘. The author then chronicled her return to England ‘to observe the medical practice of London‘s most eminent physicians’, and to meet its leading society figures such as Florence Nightingale. It was a reflection of her resilience that she overcame such grievous adversities as losing the vision in one eye, the result of a work-acquired infection in Paris, to go back to New York and successfully set up a dispensary. It is even more remarkable that she then established an infirmary for poor women and children – what the book characterised as ‘a full fledged hospital, staffed entirely by women’ such as her sister, Emily Blackwell, and Marie Zakrzewska. The book also recounted how she set up a women’s Medical College and became ‘the first professor of preventative medicine in America’; how she became ‘the first woman doctor officially inscribed in the British Medical Registry‘; and how she finally relocated to England to set up medical practice and teach at the London School of Medicine for Women (pages 100, 107, 112-127, 138-142, 147-154, 158, 170 and 174).
This enlightening book commemorates the remarkable life of the first person to qualify as a female medical doctor. This is a critical milestone in the history of medicine as it marked the first time the doors of medicine opened to let any woman in. With a well-written, strictly chronological narrative, the author accurately conveyed what turned out to be an adventurous journey full of challenges and disappointments, but one that ends triumphantly. The book’s biographical details brought out the qualities that enabled Blackwell to succeed in what is a singular pioneering objective – a lesson for anyone facing difficulties. Its uninspiring cover is perhaps the book’s only shortcoming.
The life of Elizabeth Blackwell is a reflection of the high ideals of medical practice, and these go beyond the narrow gender characterisation of the subject. Her work ethics and clinical acumen stand comparison with that of other achieving doctors, male or female. The book’s main lesson is perhaps on how to break new grounds, an essential ingredient for the advancement of any field. The biography also imparts an instructive lesson in how to nurture and attain goals that go beyond the self, as reflected in the services Blackwell rendered to the poor as a doctor, and in the inspiration and encouragement she gave to aspiring women doctors. The book highlights the laudable qualities of its subject which are highly valued in healthcare, and I recommend it to all doctors.
Publisher, Place, Year: Conari Press, Berkeley, 1997
Number of chapters: 16
Number of pages: 190
Star rating: 5