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By Leslie Lindsay 

Thorough and impeccable history of the Blackwell sisters, their claim to fame is that they were the among the first female physicians in the U.S.



Historical Focus: Women in Medicine

THE DOCTORS BLACKWELL (W.W. Norton, January 2021) is a biographical-medical-historical account of two very enterprising young women from the rather large Blackwell family, who immigrated from England to New York and then Cincinnati. From a young age, Elizabeth Blackwell felt she was destined to be more than ‘just an ordinary’ woman, and though she at first recoiled from the idea of studying medicine, that’s exactly what she did. I am not sure if she did it to ‘prove’ something, or if there was more–and THE DOCTORS BLACKWELL does go into this a bit, but overall, it’s more of a this-than-that type of read, chronicling the life of Elizabeth Blackwell, and then her younger sister, Emily, both of whom become physicians.

stack of thick books on table

Photo by Jess Bailey Designs on Pexels.com

Nimura has clearly done her homework and it shows in this impeccably researched book. However, it’s pretty dry. Perhaps I was expecting something more a long the lines of historical fiction, or narrative nonfiction that reads more like fiction ala HIDDEN VALLEY ROAD (Bob Kolker) about a family experiencing schizophrenia, sprinkled with plenty of research. THE DOCTORS BLACKWELL does describe much of what was going on with with the world at large, including slavery (it’s set in the 1830s and beyond), women’s rights and intellect, the care of women and infants, plus, the sort of infancy of medicine and a profession.

Deftly, with a keen eye, Janice P. Nimura has resurrected Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell in all their feisty, thrilling, trailblazing splendor.”

―Stacy Schiff

I did learn quite a bit in THE DOCTORS BLACKWELL (for example, medicine, even for men, was not considered ‘high class’ or professional until closer to the 20th century; grave robbing was common for cadavers to be used in anatomy dissection labs, particularly Black individuals and especially Black children/infants) and having a background in nursing myself, I found this title to be fascinating, but still a bit challenging to get through. It’s not just about Elizabeth and Emily, but about other, tangential characters, their impact on medicine, more. I think what I really wanted was the focus to be solely on the sisters. However, that may be close to impossible, given the scope of the book or the author’s intention. I so enjoyed Elizabeth’s own anatomical sketches, the admission tickets to lectures, and the additional visual material, which really brought the history to life. 


Artistic image of book cover designed and photographed by Leslie Lindsay. Follow on Instagram for more like this @leslielindsay1 #alwayswithabook #bookstagram

For more information, to connect with Janica Nimura, or to purchase a copy of THE DOCTORS BLACKWELL, please visit: 


What to Read Next:

You might like Robin Oliveria’s THE WINTER SISTERS, as well as Sara Donati’s WHERE THE LIGHT ENTERS, both historical fiction.

JaniceNimura_AuthorPhoto_2020_137RT-240x300ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Janice P. Nimura received a Public Scholar Award from the National Endowment for the Humanities in support of her work on The Doctors Blackwell. Her previous book, Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back, was a New York Times Notable book in 2015. Her essays and book reviews have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles TimesSmithsonianThe Rumpus, and LitHub, among other publications.

“The one thing I know I’ll never be is a historian,” she told her college guidance counselor in 1988. She thought she wanted to be a doctor, but life intervened: she majored in English at Yale, worked in publishing, moved to Japan with her Tokyo-born husband, and completed an M.A. in East Asian studies at Columbia upon their return to her native New York. She grew into an understanding that history is made of stories and fell in love with archival treasure-hunting, especially when it led to the forgotten lives of border-crossing nineteenth-century women. Her first book grew out of her personal interest in the earliest encounters between Japan and the United States. In her latest project she circles back to her first interest in medicine, in the context of her work in women’s history.


Leslie Lindsay is the creator and host of the award-winning author interview series,“Always with a Book.” Since 2013, Leslie, named “one of the most influential book reviewers” by Jane Friedman, ranks in the top 1% of all GoodReads reviewers and has conducted over 700 warm, inquisitive conversations with authors as wide-ranging as Robert Kolker and Mary Kubica to Helen Phillips and Mary Beth Keane, making her website a go-to for book lovers world-wide. Her writing & photography have appeared in various print journals and online. She is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA: A Parents’ Guide to Childhood Apraxia of Speech. A former psychiatric R.N. at the Mayo Clinic, Leslie’s memoir, MODEL HOME: Motherhood, Madness, & Memory, is currently on submission with Catalyst Literary Management. Leslie resides in the Chicago area with her family.



#alwayswithabook #history #medicine #biography #womeninmedicine


[Cover and author image retrieved from author’s website on 2.11.21. Author image credit: Lucy Schaefer. Artistic image of book cover designed and photographed by Leslie Lindsay. Follow on Instagram for more like this @leslielindsay1 #alwayswithabook #bookstagram]


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