On September 12, 1851, a small item appeared in the New-York Daily Tribune, the city’s largest and most progressive newspaper. “Miss Elizabeth Blackwell, M.D., has recently returned to this City, from a two years’ residence abroad,” it announced. “Miss Dr. B., we understand, has just opened an office at No. 44 University-place, and is prepared to practice in every department of her profession.”
In 1849, at the age of 28, Elizabeth Blackwell had become the first woman in America to receive a medical degree, from tiny Geneva College in rural upstate New York. Elizabeth had completed her training with some of the most prominent physicians in Paris and London, and at last she was ready to start a practice of her own. But in 1851 the term “female physician” meant something quite different from “woman with a medical degree.” For most New Yorkers, it meant one person: Madame Restell.
Two decades earlier, a woman of twenty named Ann Trow Summers had emigrated to New York from England. She and her entrepreneurial husband, Charles Lohman, surveyed the opportunities for advancement and settled on the thriving trade in patent medicines, with a nom de guerre that became a household name. In March 1839, they ran their first advertisement in the New York Sun, addressed “to married women” and laying out the argument for birth control forty years before Margaret Sanger was born. “Is it moral for parents to increase their families, regardless of consequences to themselves, or the well being of their offspring, when a simple, easy, healthy, and certain remedy is within our control?” asked the ad. Interested parties were directed to an office on Greenwich Street and the services of one Mrs. Restell.
For the middle-class mother terrified of another dangerous delivery, no less than the servant girl frantic to avoid the result of unwanted attentions, Mrs. Restell offered hope. Within the year, Mrs. became the more fashionable Madame. Madame Restell’s “female pills” were herbal nostrums with active ingredients like tansy and ergot, used by midwives as abortifacients for centuries but hardly failsafe. When they failed, there were other services she could offer. Women in a more advanced stage of pregnancy were invited behind a curtain, where Madame Restell would rupture the amniotic sac with a pointed probe of metal or whalebone. The patient was then sent home and instructed to seek the attention of a regular physician once miscarriage began. This approach was successful enough to produce a steady stream of grateful clients, but when a patient died, the law placed the blame on the practitioner. By 1849, Madame Restell had amassed a substantial fortune, as well as a criminal record.
It’s difficult to say what scandalized New Yorkers more, Madame Restell’s métier or her money. Pamphlets reporting on her trials became best sellers. “Nature is appalled, that woman, the last and loveliest of her works, could so unsex herself, as to perpetrate such fiend-like enormities,” declared one prosecutor. A whiff of sexual license clung to this woman who helped the promiscuous hide their sins. When newspapers described her as “this noted ‘Doctress,’” it was not a compliment.
Elizabeth was acutely aware of Madame Restell. The abortionist’s notoriety coincided with the dawn of Elizabeth’s interest in medicine, and perhaps helped to propel it. Restell’s second criminal trial, in the fall of 1847, gripped the public just as Elizabeth began her studies. It could not have escaped Elizabeth’s sense of irony that at the moment she accepted her hard-won M.D. in 1849, the woman known as New York’s most infamous “female physician” was briefly incarcerated at the city penitentiary—on Blackwell’s Island, no less.
Madame Restell may have been a courageous practitioner of essential solutions for desperate women, but Elizabeth—who had never faced the fear of unwanted pregnancy, and never would—knew only that motherhood was sacred, and that the Hippocratic Oath she had sworn to uphold specifically prohibited abortion. “That the honorable term ‘female physician’ should be exclusively applied to those women who carried on this shocking trade seemed to me a horror,” she later wrote. She saw it as her mission to redeem the phrase.
The Directory of the City of New-York, for 1852–1853 listed Elizabeth for the first time on page 63: “Blackwell Elizabeth, physician.” Any pride she might have taken in that entry, however, would have been diminished by this one, in the Rs: “Restell Madam, physician.” It would take more than an endorsement from the Tribune to convince New York that Dr. Blackwell was not an abortionist. No one rang the bell at 44 University Place, though “insolent letters” occasionally appeared in the post. Without colleagues, without patients, and without an income, Elizabeth found herself suddenly becalmed, alone with her ideals.
In 1854, Elizabeth’s sister Emily, five years younger, would herself receive a medical diploma. Together, the Blackwells founded the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, a hospital staffed entirely by women, intended both to allow female patients to consult a doctor of their own sex, and to provide training for the slowly growing numbers of female medical graduates. Eventually, Elizabeth and Emily would open the Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary, in order to train a legion of female physicians to join them.
They may not have had anything to do with one another, but Elizabeth Blackwell and Madame Restell were two sides of the same coin. Neither had any interest in the paths women were meant to follow. Both sought independence with tenacity and talent. Both faced unwelcome notoriety, though neither paid it much attention. And both of them, in their own way, were fierce advocates for women’s health.
Excerpted from The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women and Women to Medicine by Janice P. Nimura. Copyright (c) 2021 by Janice P. Nimura. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.