Sunday, 11 March 2018

The First Woman Doctors: Elizabeth Blackwell and her Circle

Women have always been involved in health care, as domestic healers and midwives. But in the 19th century, they began a quest to gain qualification as professional physicians and surgeons. 

The first to succeed in that aim was Elizabeth Blackwell, born in England in 1821. Her family emigrated to the United States a few years later. As a young woman, she determined to become a physician. 

Her family was supportive, but not wealthy. To earn tuition money, she taught school. That took her to the South, first to Kentucky, where she saw slavery at first hand, and became a committed abolitionist. 

In the mid-1840's, she taught in a school run by Rev. John Dickson in Asheville, North Carolina. A former physician, he approved of her medical goal and let her use his medical library. In 1846, however, the school closed down.

Blackwell moved to Charleston, South Carolina, and taught in a local boarding school. She lived in the house of Rev. Dickson's brother. Dr. Samuel H. Dickson, professor of medicine at the Medical College of South Carolina. 

With Dickson's help and encouragement, Blackwell applied to several American medical colleges. But she was rebuffed at every turn due to her gender. She persisted and in 1847, was accepted at Geneva College in Geneva, New York (now Hobart College). 

The condition of her acceptance was unusual, to say the least. All the currently enrolled male students, about 150, had to agree. They did. She received her MD in 1849. She later furthered her studies in Paris and London hospitals, particularly in obstetrics. 

Back in the US, Blackwell struggled to establish a medical practice, despite her excellent training. In the 1850's, she and her sister Emily founded the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. Emily herself was the third woman to get an MD in the US. In this endeavor they were assisted by Dr. Marie Zakrzewski, a young Polish immigrant Blackwell had mentored. (Above; Emily Blackwell, below: Marie Zakrzewski)

The Blackwell sisters also aided the Union war effort in the Civil War, helping to train nurses, though their efforts were often stymied by the male-dominated Sanitary Commission.

Blackwell returned to her native Britain several times in the late 1850's to establish an infirmary there. Although that did not succeed, she did become the first woman listed on the British General Medical Register, in 1859. She also mentored Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman to earn an MD in France, the first woman dean of a medical school, and co-founder of the first hospital staffed by women.

In 1869, after sharp disagreements with Emily, Elizabeth settled permanently in the UK. In 1874, she founded a women's medical college in London with Sophia Jex-Blake, who she had helped train. The two did not ultimately get along, clashing over goals and management.

Blackwell retired from medical practice in 1877. She subsequently devoted herself to a broad array of moral and social reform causes. These included anti-vivisection, anti-vaccination, sanitation, Christian Socialism, women's rights, sexual hygiene, and eugenics. Her stances on some of these issues were often at variance with advances in medical and scientific knowledge, and led to conflict with other early women doctors. (image: Blackwell in later years)

One of them was Mary (Putnam) Jacobi, the first American woman to earn an MD in Paris, in 1870. Jacobi rejected Blackwell's view that medicine was foremost a moral calling. Jacobi argued that its primary objective was to cure the sick and advance medical science. She also disagreed with Blackwell's contention that women should concentrate on medical specialties like obstetrics and pediatrics. In these areas, she claimed, their "female" qualities would give them an advantage over men. Jacobi argued that women should enter all fields of medicine on an equal footing with men.

Despite her disagreements with her fellow pioneering women, Blackwell's persistence and dedication was an inspiration to women aspiring to medical careers. By the late 19th century, hundreds of women had qualified to practice medicine. Thousands and then millions more would soon follow. In 1974, the US government honored Blackwell by issuing a stamp bearing her portrait.

Further Reading: Thomas Neville Bonner, To the Ends of the Earth: Women's Search for Education in Medicine (1992)

Friday, 2 March 2018

The Wicked Wit of Winston Churchill; or Somebody Else

Winston Churchill was famous, often infamous, for his biting, pithy wit. Historians and biographers may disagree as to exactly what he said to whom, or even if he said or originated certain lines attributed to him. There is little doubt, however, that he had a way -- often his way -- with words.

The recipients, or alleged recipients, of his wit were often his fellow politicians and fellow upper class folks. But they included all sectors of society. Even the voters, of whom he said (perhaps), "The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter."

That line jars uneasily (or does it?) with another of his famous statements about democracy, that it was "the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried." But did he really say that? Inquiring minds disagree.

One of his most famous quotations was directed against a woman he disliked, Tory MP Lady Nancy Astor. She had said to him at a social gathering, "Winston, if you were my husband, I would put poison in your coffee." He reputedly replied, "My dear, if you were my wife, I would drink it." Did he really say that? Churchill biographer and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson says no. But Johnson also said that Brexit would provide an extra £350 million a week for the NHS. (below: Lady Astor)

Deserved or not, Churchill had a reputation for indulging in large quantities of strong drink. One day in 1946, when he was leaving Parliament, he was accosted by Lady Astor or Labour MP Bessie Braddock (depending on which version you read). The woman in question accused him of being disgustingly drunk. "Yes," he shot back, "but you are ugly, and I shall be sober in the morning." (Below: Bessie Braddock)

He once explained his relationship with liquor as follows: "I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me."   

If the date of the ugly-sober quip, 1946, is correct, Churchill had reason to be in a foul mood. The previous year, the voters had kicked him out of office after he had led the country through World War II, by giving the Labour Party the reins of government. 

His replacement as Prime Minister, was Clement Attlee. Churchill famously called Attlee "a modest man, who has lots to be modest about." Did Churchill also originate the lines, "an empty car drove up, and Clement Attlee got out," and "He is a sheep in sheep's clothing."? Well.... (Below: Attlee)

The following story of an exchange between Churchill and Attlee is almost surely apocryphal, but sounds like something Winnie might well have said at the time. It was during the late 1940's, when Labour was nationalizing many large industries. 

One day, Churchill walked into the gents' toilet at the House of Commons to find Attlee already busy at one of the urinals. Churchill grunted and walked to the urinal farthest away from Attlee. "Winston," Attlee remarked, "why are you being so unsociable?" "Clement," Churchill replied, "I'm not being unsociable. It's just that every time you see some thing big, you want to nationalize it."

Churchill was hardly kinder to his Conservative colleague and former boss, Stanley Baldwin, Prime Minister for much of the 1920's and 30's. Once friends, during the 30's they fell out and Baldwin removed Churchill from the cabinet. When someone asked Churchill why he hadn't sent Baldwin a card on his 80th birthday, he allegedly retorted, "I wish Stanley no ill, but it would have been much better if he had never lived." That's believable enough. (Baldwin, below, died a few months later.)

Churchill often criticized himself, but could combine self-criticism with arrogance in a humorous way, as the following: "I have often had to eat my own words, but I must confess I have always found it a wholesome diet."

Churchill wrote a lot of history and it was generally complimentary, to him. But he warned us about it, humorously, of course: "History will be kind to me, because I intend to write it." 

I think that is accurate.