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"The Doctors Blackwell," | Reviewed by William Winkler

At the beginning of 2020, a total of 36 percent of American doctors were women, as were 51 percent of medical students. The percentage of female doctors and medical students has grown rapidly in the last half-century. With the older generation of American physicians approaching retirement age being predominantly male, women will soon comprise the majority of doctors in this country.

This was not always the case. In January 1849 Elizabeth Blackwell, a British immigrant, was granted the degree of Doctor of Medicine by Geneva College, in upstate New York. She was the first woman to be granted the degree in the United States. Blackwell had not been interested in the study of medicine earlier in her life, but was urged on by an acquaintance who told her that she would have suffered less from a recent illness if her physician had been a woman.

In “The Doctors Blackwell,” by Janice P. Nimura, we learn of the struggles overcome by Elizabeth Blackwell, and five years later by her sister Emily, in obtaining their medical degrees as well as the hurdles they had to surmount to obtain the hands-on post-doctoral training needed to become fully functional practicing physicians.

Nimura’s book is extensively documented, drawing on the words of the Blackwell sisters themselves as well as correspondence with their contemporaries and publications of the era. What emerges are portraits of the sisters; Elizabeth, a flinty, brook-no-nonsense type who had little patience with those who disagreed with her, and Emily, who proved to be the technically superior physician of the two and possessed of a more agreeable personality.

“The Doctors Blackwell” will give the reader fascinating insights into the growth of medical practice and knowledge in the second half of the 19th century. The book also will offer insight into the earliest days of the development of the struggle for women’s rights, both in this country and in Europe.

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