Elizabeth Blackwell–Changing American healthcare

This week attention has been focused on the Supreme Court and its decision on the Affordable Care Act. People have strong opinions about health care and who ought to provide it. It made me think of the early days of America, before the Civil War, when one of the problems women had to face getting medical treatment was having to discuss their intimate concerns with male doctors. Elizabeth Blackwell an ambitious young immigrant from England became aware of this when a friend of hers died of a medical problem that she was too embarrassed to name.First day cover of Elizabeth Blackwell stamp.

“Would you like to have a woman doctor?” asked Elizabeth. Her friend thought this would be a blessing, but quite impossible to achieve because women could not become doctors. In fact, Elizabeth discovered that the term “lady doctor” at the time meant a female abortionist. Elizabeth, who was a devout Christian, shuddered at the thought of being compared to an abortionist, but she determined that she would become a doctor. It was not an easy task.

The first task was to find an individual or institution that would help her study medicine. When she wrote to one sympathetic doctor friend, he responded in a long letter saying that “it is appropriate that man be the physician and woman the nurse”. Others told her that women would never accept treatment from another woman. A Quaker friend wrote to her when she applied to medical schools, “Thee cannot gain admission to these schools. Thee must go to Paris and don masculine attire to gain the necessary knowledge.” Elizabeth rejected the idea of disguising herself in her pursuit of education and continued to look for smaller medical schools that needed more students.  She would not take no for an answer. Eventually she found a college in Geneva, New York, that accepted her on condition the students would vote to accept her. To her delight, the students proved more accepting than the faculty. They voted unanimously to accept her and pledged that “no conduct of ours shall cause her to regret her attendance at this institution.”

The students kept their word. They treated the 26-year-old Elizabeth with respect, almost like an older sister, she reported. She completed her studies, even being allowed to attend the anatomy classes and dissections that had been considered impossible for women to endure. In January 1849, Blackwell became the first woman in the United States to receive a medical degree.

Gaining a medical degree did not, of course, erase the prejudice that remained against women practicing medicine. Elizabeth and her sister Emily, who also became a doctor, struggled for years to gain acceptance in the medical profession. Eventually they opened an infirmary for women and children in New York City. They practiced during the Civil War and, being strong abolitionists, prepared nurses to work with the Union troops.

In later life Elizabeth Blackwell divided her time between England and the United States. She gradually turned to social reform and spent less time on medicine, but the breakthrough she had made by becoming a doctor changed medicine forever. Another legacy she has left for us today is her book Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women, which is now available free of charge on Amazon.com as an ebook. The book quotes many of her journals and gives us a lively down-to-earth sense of what life was like for one of the pioneers of healthcare in America.

Dorothy Day and the nuns of today

In recent weeks there have been several news stories about the ongoing tensions between the Vatican and American nuns. After the nuns had been criticized by the Vatican for paying too much attention to social issues and too little to doctrinal concerns, a group of nuns traveled to Rome to speak to leaders about what they felt were injustices in the report. According to the New York Times, “The group’s president, Sister Pat Farrell, said in a statement that during an “open meeting” the group’s representatives “were able to directly express” their concerns. The nuns said they would report back to the group’s board in the United States and determine a course of action to respond to the Vatican.” Americans of all religious persuasions, or none at all will be waiting to hear what the nuns’ course of action will be.

For many people the confrontation between the nuns and the bishops will recall memories of Dorothy Day, a social activist who had no difficulty speaking up to bishops. Dorothy Day was not a nun, but she was an ardent Catholic and a founder of the Catholic Worker movement. A convert to Catholicism, Day decided in the late 1920s to give up secular journalism and start a newspaper devoted to social issues. Working with Peter Maurin, she founded the Catholic Worker paper, which started appearing at about the same time that the United States entered the Great Depression. The newspaper soon attracted not only a core of readers, but also a community of people bound by the ideals of social justice and peace.

For several decades the Catholic Worker was a center of ideas and activism for many Catholics. The original house was in New York City and Dorothy’s work was always centered there. The workers were strongly pacifist all through the Second World War, which was an unpopular stance with many Catholics, both laypeople and clergy. After the war they demonstrated against the development of nuclear weapons and refused to participate in civil defense drills and other aspects of the 1950s.

Dorothy Day and the Workers also strongly supported unions, which led to perhaps her most visible struggle with the Catholic hierarchy. When the gravediggers went on strike for higher wages, Cardinal Spellman, representing the Catholic Church that owned the cemeteries strongly opposed them. Dorothy Day and many of her supporters picketed with the strikers, who eventually lost the strike. At one point in this period, Dorothy Day was asked to go to the chancery office where a Monsignor told her she must change the name of the newspaper The Catholic Worker because it was not an official publication of the church. Dorothy discussed the matter with her colleagues and they did not comply with the request. Nothing ever came of the refusal and the Workers and the Cardinal continued in wary co-existence with one another for many years.

Dorothy Day was always a faithful Catholic, but she did not find it necessary to bow to the will of every clergyman. She is quoted in Robert Coles’s excellent book Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion as saying:

[Cardinal Spellman] is our chief priest and confessor; he is our spiritual leader—of all of us who live here in New York. But he is not our ruler. He is not someone whose very word all Catholics must heed, whose every deed we must copy.

As we watch watch the nuns today and their struggles with the way they practice their religious duties, we can hope that today’s Catholic women can also draw the line between following their faith and blindly obeying all the criticisms of the clergy.

What are the children learning?

An article in the NY Times today tells a worrying tale about how some high school students in high-achieving schools are using so-called “study pills” to increase their performance on exams. The drugs are legally prescribed to many teenagers who complain about an inability to concentrate or a tendency “to stare out the window” during classes. Well, most of us who have finished school can remember long periods of staring out of windows (if we were lucky enough to have classrooms with windows) during classes that seemed long and boring. I remember staring longingly out of an open window from which I could hear the thump of the school baseball team practicing every afternoon during my history class. History was one of my favorite subjects, but when spring came and the sun was shining on bright new grass outside, even stories of Henry VIII and his many wives couldn’t compete. When did staring out of a window become a symptom needing treatment instead of a natural response for young people? Being distracted by new sensations isn’t necessarily a bad thing and surely it would be better for parents and teachers to help kids learn how to cope instead of sending them to a doctor for medication. But trying to produce outstanding children motivates lots of parents.   

The urge to push children into ever-higher achievement isn’t new; the Victorians did the same.  John Stuart Mill is an example of a child whose parents wanted him to excel. His father, a famous philosopher, decided his son would follow in his footsteps, and he started early. According to a Wikipedia article, John Stuart was taught Greek when he was three years old. “By the age of eight he had read Aesop’s Fables, Xenophon’s Anabasis and the whole of Herodotus, and was acquainted with Lucian, Diogenes Laërtius, Isocrates and six dialogues of Plato. He had also read a great deal of history in English and had been taught arithmetic.” The lessons came thick and fast all through his teenage years and he studied dutifully until at the age of twenty he suffered a nervous breakdown, which he later thought was caused by the heavy emphasis on early intellectual achievement. Fortunately for Mill, he pulled out of his depression and went on to have a distinguished career.

Margaret Fuller is another example of an individual whose early life was dominated by a father’s insistence on intellectual distinction. Her position was unusual for a woman, because most fathers in the early 19th century would not have bothered educating a daughter. While I was writing my biography of Margaret Fuller, I found ample evidence that Margaret had very mixed feelings about her precocious education and how it affected her life. Before Margaret was four years old, her father started teaching her to read. She learned easily and within a few months she was reading stories and enjoying them. Almost as soon as she had mastered reading in English, she started on Latin. By the time she was six years old, Margaret was spending her days bent over a book instead of playing with other children. Although she too grew up to have a distinguished career, she sometimes wondered whether her father’s early pushing made her life less happy than it might have been.

It seems as though we haven’t learned much over the years about letting children find their own paths in life. I guess it’s just something every generation has to learn all over again. Meanwhile we can only hope that pharmaceuticals won’t become a regular part of high school life.

A Man Who Noticed Women

Women from history give us tantalizing glimpses of what life was like for women in the centuries before we were born, but sometimes it’s worth looking at women’s lives through the eyes of men. One of the unlikely observers of women’s lives was the African explorer Mungo Park.  Born in Scotland in 1771, Park was hungry for adventure and travel, and he certainly got his fill of those.

In 1795, he got funding from the African Association in London to explore Africa and if possible locate the sources of the rivers that enabled trade to the interior. The Association wanted someone who could provide an accurate map of Africa. Too impatient to wait for the Association to hire the fifty men originally planned to go with him, he left on May 22, 1795, on the brig Endeavor. After sailing for thirty days, the ship arrived at Jillifree, a town at the mouth of the Gambia River in West Africa.

During all of his travels Mungo Park distinguished himself by paying a lot of attention to African life and to learning how tribal societies worked. He admired the strength and courage of many Africans, but disapproved of the way they treated their women. In one village, Mungo saw a ceremony that shocked him. It started when darkness fell and he heard screams from the forest. Soon a masked man appeared and all of the villagers assembled in the central square. The ceremony began with singing and dancing, but even as they danced, the women were afraid. They knew the ceremony had been started by a husband who was angry with one of his wives, but no one knew whose husband it was. At last the masked man pointed to one woman, and men hurried to tie her to a tree. She was beaten as a punishment for not obeying her husband. The women who watched were expected to learn their lesson and be obedient to their husbands after seeing the harsh punishment.

Mungo Park was captured several times during his travels and held as a captive by tribal chiefs who were suspicious of his motives. He escaped successfully from one captivity by sneaking out of his tent in the middle of the night, but found that the harsh landscape was a greater threat than the chief. He walked for miles trying to find a water hole. As the sun rose, the hot sand reflected heat until the sand began to shimmer. Mungo grew dizzy watching it. He had to find a water hole. Climbing a tree gave him a wider view, but there was no sign of a water hole. The land was sandy and desolate as far as he could see. His horse was thirsty, and too tired to carry him. Hoping the horse would survive even if he himself died of thirst, Mungo removed his bridle. As he did that, his dizziness overwhelmed him and he fainted on the sand.

When he recovered consciousness, Mungo realized the horse had not run off but was munching dry grass nearby. The sun was sinking and the sand was a little cooler. Mungo resolved to make another effort to reach water. He led the horse onward in the direction of Bambara. It was now dark, but Mungo could read his compass by the lightning which continued to flash. Finally the rain came—a downpour. Hastily Mungo spread all of his clothes on the ground so the rain could soak them. He quenched his thirst by wringing and sucking the wet cloth. At last his parched throat had some relief. The horse opened his mouth to let the rain fall on his tongue, and Mungo helped by squeezing water into his mouth too. The water gave them strength to move on.

At last he found a Fulani village, but the people refused to give him food. He turned to leave, and noticed a few huts outside the main village. Hoping to find more sympathy there than from more prosperous citizens, he approached them. At the door of one hut, an elderly woman was spinning cotton. He gestured to indicate that he was hungry, and she immediately invited him inside. There she brought him a bowl of couscous left from the night before. In return for her generosity, he gave her a pocket handkerchief. The kindly woman even provided corn for his horse, so Mungo left her hut feeling more comfortable than he had for days.

When at last Park reached the city of Segu and located the Niger River, he felt triumphant, but he found no welcome among local people. The king of the area refused to see him and once again he had to rely on the kindness of women.  A woman passing by from her work in the fields she saw how tired and hungry Mungo looked.  She invited him into her hut, spread out a mat and told him he could remain for the night. She also prepared food for him and gave him grain for the horse. Then she called the rest of the women of the family together and they continued their work of spinning cotton while Mungo rested on the mat.

As the women spun the cotton they sang, and Mungo soon heard one woman singing a song about him:

“The winds roared, and the rains fell.

The poor white man, faint and weary,

Came and sat under our tree

He has no mother to bring him milk;

No wife to grind his corn.

And all of the women joined in the chorus: “Let us pity the white man; no mother has he

When Mungo Park finally returned to England, he wrote a bestselling book about his travels in Africa. It remained in print for generations and many people learned from it something about the lives of Africans. The history of the nineteenth century shows that Europeans did not learn enough, but Mungo Park made at least a first attempt in that direction.