‘If we kill a few it does not matter,’ wrote Dr Elizabeth Blackwell in 1859; but she was proud, at least, that her New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children was ‘not as bad in the killing line as the male hospitals’. This lack of human sympathy was characteristic of the first woman doctor, who admitted to feeling ‘neither love nor pity for individuals’.
There are further paradoxes in the life of Elizabeth Blackwell. She was the daughter of a convinced Abolitionist who was engaged in the Bristol sugar-refining trade before going bankrupt and taking his family to America. Here the young Elizabeth fought against great odds to qualify as a doctor yet condemned the ‘noisy outcry’ of the early feminist movement. While campaigning later on for ‘social purity’ she recognised the potency of female desires and admitted her own susceptibility ‘to the influence of sex’.
One of the strengths of this excellent biography (which, to declare an interest, I nudged in a very small way towards publication) is its sensitive analysis of these intricacies. With deep insight and copious research Julia Boyd examines her complex subject to reveal warts, a glass eye and all. At