Dr. Elizabeth is highly readable and is a valuable biography for young people. It portrays the struggle to open the medical profession to women and exposes the many lines of defense devised to prevent women from expanding their role once they entered the field of medicine. Clapp delves into some of the reasons women wanted to become doctors; she also provides insights into the state of medicine in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century, especially the lack of concern for sanitation and hygiene among practitioners who saw no value in cleanliness and dismissed sanitation as a waste of time.
Clapp emphasizes Blackwell’s concern for sanitation and her desire to raise the standards of medical education. She reveals the poor quality of medical education in the nineteenth century. Blackwell’s two years at Geneva Medical College consisted of short, superficial courses with easy oral examinations and no practical experience. A typical medical college had no laboratories, clinics, or hospital affiliation, and the faculty consisted of part-time teachers who were physicians in private practice seeking to increase their income. Blackwell’s New York Women’s Medical Col-lege was well in advance of such schools as the Harvard Medical School, which still utilized short lecture courses and required no practical experience.
The book is a captivating one. The conversational tone and use of the first person provide immediacy and intimacy, and Clapp’s use of these methods is effective. The story...
(The entire section is 624 words.)
Clapp’s study fits into the contexts of women’s history and medical history; in both contexts, it helps to rescue history from the dominance of male personages, particularly political and military figures. Written in 1974, Dr. Elizabeth reflects the women’s movement that gained force in the early 1970’s, with its emphases on education, careers, and rights. In terms of medical history, the biography also helps remind the reader of what has been called a new crisis in medical education: the need for teaching and practicing the “caring” aspects of medicine. Several reports in the 1980’s on American medical schools concluded that the likelihood of producing physicians who are both technically competent and compassionate is slim. Blackwell was both; she combined tenderness, caring, and empathy with expertise, skill, and knowledge.
The portrait of Blackwell is one of a real human being, with desires, fears, strengths, and weaknesses. For a young person interested in medicine, professional women, the status of women in society, or simply a fascinating personality, Dr. Elizabeth will prove rewarding.