Piers Brendon

First In Her Field

The Excellent Doctor Blackwell: The Life of the First Woman Physician

By

Sutton Publishing 314pp £20 order from our bookshop

‘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’. 

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • Why did the 'bold and determined' Empress Matilda never manage to become Queen regnant? Peter Marshall reviews a n… ,
    • From the Archive: Martyn Bedford on Ian McEwan's 'Atonement' ,
    • In 'Silenced Voices' reports the ongoing story of the human rights lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, who has been… ,
    • The mystery of Jack the Ripper's identity has long been agonised over. But what do we know about his victims?… ,
    • A piece of Literary Review history from way back in 1983: John Haffenden talks to the great Iris Murdoch. ,
    • Britain’s only travelling lit fest, the Garden Museum Literary Festival is heading to Houghton Hall, Norfolk, for a… ,
    • 'The 19th-century German sage is not my idea of a pleasant travel companion' goes hiking with Friedr… ,