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THE DOCTORS BLACKWELL: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women

March 17, 2021 @ 6:00 pm - 8:00 pm

Wed, March 17, 2021

6:00 PM – 8:00 PM EDT

About this Event

DOCTORS BLACKWELL looks closely at the sisters Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, English immigrants who, in quick succession, became the first and third women, respectively, in the U.S. to earn medical degrees—and who, in 1857, founded the very first hospital staffed by women, the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children.

Tenacious visionaries, Elizabeth and Emily obtained their medical degrees despite the numerous and considerable challenges before them. Elizabeth’s entry into this previously all-male profession was called “a farce,” “the nefarious process of amalgamation,” and was met with bursts of laughter and derision. The dean of one school summed up a popular fear among male practitioners, who were worried that female patients would only want to see female doctors: “You cannot expect us to furnish you with a stick to break our heads with.” Attempts by both sisters to get into medical colleges were either denied or met with toothless acceptance—the faculty at Geneva Medical College left the ultimate decision of whether to accept Elizabeth up to the students, who only agreed as a sort of fraternity prank.

The Blackwells’ ambitions extended far beyond themselves. Whereas Elizabeth strove to stand alongside her male allies as an exceptional woman who had proved herself their equal, Emily yearned to strip her gender and make her way in anonymity. Nimura writes of Elizabeth, “caring for suffering individuals had never been the engine that drove her. In becoming a doctor, she meant to heal humanity.” And as Emily once reminded Elizabeth, the point was “to be not the first female M.D.s, but the first of legions.”

Now all but forgotten or watered down in children’s books, the sisters (especially Elizabeth, deemed the “lioness”) made national and international news when they earned their degrees and began practicing, and were consistently trailed by whispers and curious looks. They were written up in the New York Times; mocked in Punch, the London satirical paper; and they and their work were profiled in leading medical and women’s journals. What’s more, their lives intersected with some of the most notable figures of their era. Florence Nightingale, Lucy Stone, Horace Greeley, Henry Ward Beecher, Lady Byron, Henry Whitney Bellows, and Dorothea Dix made important introductions for them and/or supported their endeavors publicly. Elizabeth even won a private meeting with President Abraham Lincoln.

THE DOCTORS BLACKWELL illuminates these two remarkable women—in all their complicated, contradictory brilliance—whose profound influence changed the medical profession forever.

Janice P. Nimura—an independent historian whose last book, Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back, was a New York Times’s Notable book of 2015—is the winner of a 2017 National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar award.

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March 17, 2021
6:00 pm - 8:00 pm