Photo credit: LUCY SCHAEFFER PHOTOGRAPHY
I’ve always loved historic house museums, loved peering beyond the velvet rope into a Victorian bedroom or a colonial kitchen and imagining the ghosts that wore those dresses, or worked the handle of that butter churn, or laid the fire in that grate. If the rooms still exist, with their ornaments and implements intact, surely the people must also be hovering nearby? The veil between past and present feels transparent.
I’ve spent the last five years getting to know Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, pioneering women doctors and prolific writers who gave me plenty to do in the archives. But some of the best discoveries happened when I left the library and started following them around out in the world. When you’re trying to tell a story about people born two centuries ago, it helps to stand where they stood, wherever that is still possible.
Born in the 1820s, the Blackwells spent their earliest years in Bristol, one of England’s busiest ports. The proceeds from their father’s sugar refinery paid for an airy terraced house at the corner of Wilson Street and Lemon Lane. When their mother’s back was turned, Elizabeth and her two older sisters would climb out the window of an attic bedroom onto the parapet, their “sky parlour,” and take turns majestically surveying their city through a spyglass.
So I went to Bristol. My guide to Wilson Street was a diminutive and venerable local historian with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Blackwells’ Bristol and the twinkling energy of a woman half my
age, let alone hers. The house is still there, though the neighborhood is no longer where the promising young capitalists live. Graffiti reaches nearly to the height of the oval plaque proudly claiming the building as the childhood home of the world’s first female MD. But if you drift down Lemon Lane far enough to take in the back of the house, you can see the parapet. It’s easy to imagine a little girl up there, gazing out upon a grand future.
We walked all over Bristol that day, ending up at the suspension bridge over the gorge of the river Avon, where the Blackwell children picnicked and picked wildflowers. And then we were tired and cold, as the Blackwells surely were at the end of a day’s outing, and it was time for tea and cake, though I doubt theirs was dark chocolate ganache.
I went looking for old places and came home with new friends.
Elizabeth received her medical degree from tiny Geneva College, perched at the northern tip of Seneca Lake in upstate New York. So I went to Geneva, where the graceful sweep of South Main Street looks much as it did when Elizabeth arrived in 1847. Though her professors and classmates came to respect Elizabeth’s talent, the townsfolk stared at the spectacle of a female medical student as if she were a particularly appalling sideshow freak. They reached one of two conclusions about this woman who wanted to study the intimate details of the human body in the company of men: either she was wicked, or she was insane.
My inn was one of the oldest houses on South Main, and the proprietor — retired director of the Geneva Historical Society — was delighted to offer history alongside his excellent pancakes and sausage. With his help I traced the outlines of Elizabeth’s life there. I understood her choice of lodgings, steps from the medical building: only a few moments of gawking hostility to endure as she hurried to and from her studies each day. I stood on the steps of the church where her commencement ceremony took place, and felt her satisfaction.
After graduation in 1849, Elizabeth went to Paris to pursue practical training. She lived among the midwifery students at La Maternité, a public lying-in hospital housed in the 17th-century convent of Port-Royal, which still stands — less than a block from the flat of an old and dear friend of mine. So I went to Paris (how could I not?). By the time I arrived he had made the acquaintance of a motherly docent with a ring of keys and unbounded enthusiasm for our wandering investigations: along the colonnaded cloister where Elizabeth walked briskly from the labor ward to the refectory and then to the lecture hall; up the massive wooden staircase to the dormitory she shared with the other élèves
; into the chapel she studiously avoided, her Unitarianism out of step with the saints. The central courtyard was graceful but small, and once in residence Elizabeth could not leave, only gaze up at a square of sky.
It was at La Maternité that Elizabeth faced a crisis that changed the shape of her career, if not its course: she contracted purulent ophthalmia from an infected infant, and lost one eye. For weeks she lay ill, unsure whether she would retain her sight. La Maternité is lovely but chilly in late fall, echoing, gray, austere: a grim place in which to endure excruciating pain and fear among relative strangers. My regard for Elizabeth, already high, shifted toward something like awe.
Elizabeth anointed her sister Emily, five years younger, to follow her into medicine. Having received her own degree, Emily headed to Edinburgh for further study, where she entered the crowded orbit of James Young Simpson, illustrious obstetrician, esteemed professor, discoverer of the anesthetic properties of chloroform. So I went to Edinburgh. I saw where Emily had stayed in the Old Town, and explored the steep closes off Canongate where she attended laboring women in the wee hours. I walked her daily commute across the Mound to Queen Street in the New Town, where Simpson’s house remains the tallest in the row.
The house is now a drug counseling center, and the door was open, so in the spirit of following in Blackwell footsteps, I walked in. Here Emily had climbed each day to Simpson’s consulting rooms on the second floor, observing Simpson’s startling but undeniably skillful innovation of performing pelvic examinations on his patients, and occasionally performing them herself. Here was the bannister she gripped on her way up: wrought iron with a broad wooden railing, and Simpson’s Latinized initials — IYS — worked flamboyantly into the uprights. Later, in the collections of the Royal College of Surgeons, I found Simpson’s monaural stethoscopes in rosewood and ivory. I wondered if Emily had pressed one of those very instruments to her own ear.
My most intimate encounter with the Blackwells’ world required no travel at all. At the edge of Greenwich Village, at the corner of Bleecker and Crosby Streets, stands the small brick house in which Elizabeth and Emily founded the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children in 1857: the first hospital staffed entirely by women. I contrived reasons to walk by, photographed it from every angle, and at last made the acquaintance of the woman who lived there: a prominent jewelry designer, sculptor, and blithe spirit who seemed to move within her own sunbeam. She was proud of her home’s history and eager to help reintroduce the Blackwells to the present; she had even named one of her collections “Blackwell” in the sisters’ honor. She had just embarked on a full-scale restoration of the building, and showed me every detail: the hand-hewn rafters, the hearths in each corner, the tall sash windows with their folded shutters, the attic dormers. She invited me back each time a new area became accessible — we even climbed out on the scaffolding and onto the roof. I wrote the chapter on the Infirmary inside the building at her dining table, feeling the ghosts nearby.
I went looking for old places and came home with new friends: a fairy godmother in Bristol, a historian-innkeeper in Geneva, a solicitous tour guide in Paris, a brilliantly creative kindred spirit in Manhattan. I left my drafts and transcriptions behind and used my senses to deepen my sense of the story: the view from a parapet, the echo of footsteps along a cloistered walkway, the feel of cobbles underfoot in Edinburgh, the scent of the breeze off Seneca Lake.
Before too long the research libraries will reopen, and it’ll be safe to travel again. I’ll need a new story to follow, first into and then out of the archive, wherever the ghosts lead. I can’t wait.
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Janice P. Nimura
is 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. She is the winner of a 2017 National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar award. She lives in New York City. The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women and Women to Medicine
is her latest book.