Nimura chronicles the lives of medical pioneers Emily and Elizabeth Blackwell in The Doctors Blackwell (Norton, Oct.)
What led you to this topic?
I was a science kid before I was an English major—I started out college premed and then swerved—and I wanted to spend more time with 19th-century women. I happened to run across a mention of Emily Blackwell in the context of queer history, as a woman who had a pioneering career and a female partner. So I followed where Emily led, and that led to Elizabeth very quickly.
What about your research was most rewarding?
Of course, when you find that letter that reveals some juicy bit of anecdote or personality—that’s exciting. There were nine Blackwell siblings and they were constantly writing to each other, so there was an unbelievable depth of letters; every biographer’s dream is to have more material than you know what to do with. I went to the corner of Bleecker and Crosby in Manhattan, where the Blackwell sisters founded the New York Infirmary, and communed with the ghosts in that building. I got to shadow an ob-gyn. Those were highlights of the research, getting into the physical, five-senses version of what this was all about.
What about the story do you think might surprise readers?
There are some wonderful biographies of Elizabeth Blackwell, but they tend to polish off the rough edges. Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell were extraordinary and pioneering, but they were also very hard on women and out of step with the 19th-century women’s movement, with suffrage. These two are not perky, pretty figureheads—they’re much realer than that.
The book is full of portraits of other trailblazing women. Was that a theme you consciously pursued?
Elizabeth and Emily had such high standards for work and for moral behavior that the people they really connected to had to rise to the level. I think that part of the Blackwells’ wariness toward other women had to do with how hard they had worked to get to where they were. The women who they formed connections with had to prove themselves as that serious and skilled. Elizabeth’s extraordinariness came with a certain rigidity that was both key to her achievement and a barrier. People respected her, they admired her, but they didn’t love her.
You also include plenty of details about the era’s medicine. What led you to include those elements?
That’s just premed me geeking out. The history of medicine is a crazy thing—science meets gothic horror. I love the physical culture of the history of medicine. What it felt like to pick up this or that instrument. It’s also the history of being human, I think. As humans we have to figure out how we work, and what to do about it.