Written by Tanya Lee Stone, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman
Henry Holt & Company, 2013
I’ll bet you’ve met plenty of doctors in your life.
The story starts in the 1830’s, which was a time when women were expected to be wives and mothers or one of the expected female occupations, such as a teacher or a seamstress. Elizabeth Blackwell was a little girl during these times and was the kind of girl who stood up to any challenge and let her curiosity lead the way. As a child, she would get nauseous at the sight of blood and hated being sick. When she grew up, though, she had a friend with a terminal illness and this friend suggested she become a doctor, because it would be so much nicer to have a female doctor. Elizabeth couldn’t stop thinking about the idea, even though others thought it was ridiculous. She took a teaching job to earn the money to go to medical school but no school would accept her. Finally, she found a school and, even though the acceptance had started as a joke, she made the best of it and graduated at the top of her class. She became the first woman doctor and paved the way for all the women who followed her.
When Elizabeth Blackwell first started on the road to become a doctor, she was told that women were ‘intellectually inferior’ to men and it was actually suggested to her that disguising herself as a man was the only way she could ever get into medical school. And once she graduated, it didn’t really get any easier. She may have had a medical degree, but that didn’t mean people were ready to accept her as a doctor. As a strong conservative and social reformer, she advocated for better hygiene and sanitation, but also against contraception and the Contagious Disease Act. She established a medical school for women in London and published several books on the physical and moral education of children, particularly girls.
The book opens with Elizabeth as a child and we see that she is curious and headstrong. Author Tanya Lee Stone makes her story inspiring and interesting, making us believe in her so much that, by the end of the book, we know she is capable of achieving any goal she sets for herself. I like that she includes that Elizabeth was disgusted by illness and the sight of blood, because it shows yet another obstacle that she had to overcome. Marjorie Priceman’s illustrations, in gouache and india ink are full of color and movement. A note in the back of the book presents more information on the rest of her career after school and references are included for further reading, as well. Considering that I have been seeing a female doctor for most of my adult life, I am extremely grateful to Dr. Blackwell and all that she did to break down this barrier.
And what did we learn from her? What she teaches me is that many doors that are wide open now were once shut and we owe a debt to those who struggled to open them.