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A Doctor's Triumph
By Nancy Kline
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 1997 Nancy Kline
All rights reserved.
One afternoon in 1859, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell returned to visit the first house she remembered living in as a child, in the city of Bristol, England. She found the house, still standing on Wilson Street, much smaller than she had remembered it. And as she gazed around the high-ceilinged entryway, she suddenly seemed to see herself much smaller too, herself as a young child. Above her in the hall—just there—her own small childish face seemed to be peering wistfully over the banister, and the memory of a scene from her earliest childhood suddenly rose up around her.
All the others were downstairs in the dining room, talking and laughing and eating, while Mr. Burnet, a flamboyant Irishman from Cork, hilariously held forth. Of all the visitors who came to dinner at the Blackwell house—Christian missionaries like himself, philanthropists, social reformers, travelers freighted with tales—Mr. Burnet was the most compelling storyteller, the most uproarious commentator on the world and his own adventures in it. He had the Irish gift of gab. The little girl Elizabeth longed to listen to him, perched beside her older sisters at the children's table where they sat on festive occasions like this, enchanted witnesses to other people's lives out in the great wide world beyond the familiar house and the sugar refinery attached to it that constituted the universe they knew. But in her exile upstairs, all Elizabeth could hear was a distant burst of merriment each time the servants opened the dining room door to clear away the dishes or to carry in the next course.
She was being punished that evening for some sin, some childish piece of misbehavior. Her name had been written carefully into The Black Book carried everywhere by her Aunt Bar, who kept track of the children's failings and determined the appropriate punishment. She had sentenced Elizabeth to exclusion from tonight's party. Upstairs it was lonely—dark and silent except for the occasional scrabbling of night creatures under the eaves. It hurt to be shut out, it was enraging; and Elizabeth was filled with guilt at having been wicked enough to get her name into The Black Book. It would not happen again, she vowed.
Forty years later, standing in the familiar entryway, Elizabeth could not remember the specific mischief for which she had been blamed, but she would always remember the punishment. Nor would she forget how unquestioningly she had accepted it. Aunt Bar was a grown-up; she must be right: "I always accepted, without thought of resistance the decrees of my superiors," Elizabeth wrote years later. "The fact that those in authority were capable of injustice or stupidity was a perception of later growth."
During that same visit to the house on Wilson Street, as she stood pondering the image of herself as a tiny child excluded, something truly startling happened. She heard the front door latch lift, clicking in the lock. She turned. Suddenly, there stood Papa Blackwell—who had been dead for many years—smiling directly at her, in the white flannel suit he used to wear during the hottest summer months when he went to work in his sugar house. And then he was gone. He seemed to leave behind the sweet and cloying scent of sugarcane.
Elizabeth Blackwell first arrived in Bristol on February 3, 1821. She was the fourth baby born to Hannah and Samuel Blackwell, and she was so puny that her parents doubted she would live. They had lost a baby son the year before, and now they watched this new baby daughter's struggle. They feared for her, such a tiny helpless thing. She seemed about to die.
But Elizabeth survived. She had been given her life, however tenuously, and she took hold of it and held on tight.
At the end of many days of watchfulness, when finally they felt sure that she had really come to stay, Hannah and Samuel called her two older sisters into the bedroom. One at a time, one rung at a time, five-year-old Anna and then three-year-old Marian clambered up the mahogany ladder at the side of Hannah Blackwell's high canopied bed and stared at their new sister. They laughed. They said her name. They welcomed her.
From the very first day, the runt of the litter never grew taller than five foot one. As a child, Elizabeth looked much more frail and vulnerable than her siblings. Her two older sisters, like their dark, high-spirited mother, were curly-haired brunettes, whereas Elizabeth took after her father, gray-eyed and somewhat grave, her blond hair straight and pale almost to invisibility. From the very first, "Little Shy," as her father quickly nicknamed her, was Papa's child. Elizabeth resembled him in more than simply physical ways. From him she took her stern perfectionism and her straight-faced wit and her obstinacy. As the Blackwell family grew and she came to have six younger siblings as well as two older sisters, Elizabeth proved to be more stubborn than all the rest of them put together, making up in sheer tenacity what she lacked in size. From the beginning, Little Shy sank her teeth so deeply and so doggedly into whatever it was she wanted that no one could shake her loose.
Her sisters and her brothers knew this about her. If there was something she couldn't do—a game she did not play as well as her brothers, a book that was too hard for her, a problem in arithmetic she could not solve—she kept on trying till she mastered it. The family knew it took her longer to get dressed than everybody else because she was so meticulous. And in those days there was so much for girls to get dressed in: in summertime, flowery frocks with puff sleeves tied with matching ribbons; in wintertime, dark worsted dresses worn beneath a pelisse; all this over pantalets and petticoats; and, on her feet, corked clogs or noisy wood-soled shoes or, if there was company coming, red slippers with crisscross ribbons.
Her family saw how her perfectionism was turned inward also. It wasn't just the outside world she wished to conquer, but the world within her. Little Shy was always testing herself, trying to strengthen herself, "fighting the devil," as she called it. In imitation of the saints, she slept on the floor of her room, until her parents made her stop. She fasted during meals. When she had to give this up because it made her faint at the dinner table, she consented to eat, but turned down all her favorite foods. She hated being sick; it made her feel that her body was in control of her. Once when she was suffering from severe chills and fever, she refused to go to bed and tried to cure herself by walking them off (which didn't work). She seemed, even as a very little girl, to be perpetually honing her will. One day when she was only six years old, trailing after her two older sisters as they discussed what they wanted to be when they grew up, Elizabeth interjected: "I don't know what I'm going to be, but it will be something hard."
This purposeful, skinny child set her own uncompromising standards very early, scrambling along on the edge of other people's conversations, just the slightest bit excluded. She was, after all, the youngest of the three oldest Blackwell girls. She was always grouped with her two older sisters, but she was always, by definition, the third wheel—a six year old trying to keep up with a nine year old and an eleven year old. It meant she must aim higher. It reinforced the fact that she was somehow different, odd girl out—an impression underscored by the fact that the brother who was born right before her died, and the brother who was born right after her died. In later years, she spoke of her brothers and sisters as having come "all in twos": Anna and Marian, Samuel and Henry, Emily and Ellen, Howard and George. Elizabeth saw herself as the cheese who stood alone, bracketed on either side by her dead brothers, separated from the rest of her family by just that much space, time, and death. A loner.
In fact, her mother gave birth thirteen times; two other children died in infancy as well. Elizabeth said later that she could scarcely remember a moment during her childhood when Mama was not either expecting or nursing a baby. But if this maternal image led to Elizabeth's future reverence for motherhood, as she said it did, the grown-up to whom she felt closest during all these crowded years was Papa. How she loved him. He made her laugh. He expected a great deal of her—as much as she herself did—and he was strict in bringing up his children, as strict as his three unmarried sisters who lived with the family. If he was tough, however, Samuel Blackwell also had a sense of humor, especially when turning down what he considered to be extravagant requests from his children. These they would submit to him in writing, and he would write back his reply ("No!") in the form of a verse.
One day, Elizabeth and her two older sisters had submitted a petition to him, asking that they be allowed to climb out on the roof so that they could see farther with Anna's new telescope. Her father responded:
Anna, Bessie, and Polly,
Your request is mere folly
The leads are too high
For those who can't fly
If I let you go there,
I suppose your next prayer
Will be for a hop
To the chimney top!
So I charge you three misses,
Not to show your phizes
On parapet wall, or chimney so tall,
But to keep on the earth,
The place of your birth.
"Even so," says Papa. "Amen," says Mama.
"Be it so," says Aunt Bar.
Another time, when a cousin was to stay overnight, the three oldest Blackwell girls requested that all four of them be allowed to sleep in the enormous bed in the guest room. This was Papa's answer:
If you four little girls were together to lie,
I fear you'd resemble the pigs in their sty!
Such groaning! Such grunting! Such sprawling about!
I could not allow such confusion and rout!!!!!
So this is my judgment:—'tis wisdom you'll own,
Two beds for four girls are far better than one!
His poetry, his warmth, his humor made Papa seem a "beneficent Providence" to Little Shy. She thought of him as a kind of god: witty, loving—and superhumanly demanding. His expectations of his family equaled his expectations of the rest of humanity. He dreamed of the possibility of a better world. He believed (as would his children after him) in the perfectibility of the human race. While this is admirable and inspiring, it is not always easy to live with. Elizabeth's sister Anna characterized him as "excellent, most generous and affectionate," but spoke too of his "coldness of manner and austerity of ideas."
Samuel and his wife, Hannah, were strict Methodists. They believed that you were responsible, always, for your every action in this world. Each morning Samuel gathered his family and servants together for what Anna called a "horrid" reading of chapters from the Bible, followed by endless prayers, "the infliction [being] made before breakfast." Unlike Anna, Elizabeth enjoyed these daily prayer sessions, as she enjoyed Sundays, when the whole family attended morning and afternoon services at Bridge Street Chapel and spent the rest of the day learning hymns and biblical passages. Sometimes she even got to accompany Papa, who was a lay preacher, as he traveled through the countryside, delivering sermons.
The biggest social event in the Blackwell family calendar was missionary week, mid-May of every year, when everyone went to chapel every day, supplied with vast picnic lunches. They spent long hours listening, fascinated, to the exotic stories brought back to Bristol by returning missionaries.
Theirs was a household steeped in religion, and with it, hand-in-hand, went a belief in social reform. The Blackwells wanted to change the world. Papa worked for more democratic voting laws at a time and in a country where it was not only women but also the majority of men who were not allowed to vote. Only rich and privileged males had suffrage. He supported educational reform and equal rights for women. He preached temperance (total abstinence from drinking), and he was antislavery, despite the fact that he was a sugar refiner and both his city and his business were deeply intertwined with the slave trade.
Until 1807, when buying and selling slaves was outlawed in England, Bristol was a major slave-trading port, and in the ensuing years many of Samuel's colleagues continued to smuggle slaves to the colonies. There, they picked the sugarcane that was shipped to England to be refined into sugar. Samuel wrestled increasingly with the painful contradiction that he both opposed slavery and depended on it, a contradiction most clearly expressed by his own children the year they voluntarily gave up eating sugar (which paid their bills) since it was a "slave product."
Elizabeth was marked for life by her father's struggle and by her early exposure to evangelical Christianity and the social reform movement. The very same authority figure who ruled her childhood like a "beneficent Providence" also taught her to question authority, to rebel; and it was from Papa, too, that she learned the high cost of rebellion.
The Blackwells were not in danger of being jailed or killed for their beliefs, as were their forerunners, the Puritans. But their view of the world—that slavery was wrong and men and women might live as equals—was definitely a minority view, and especially as religious Dissenters, they were second-class citizens. In England during the 1820s, Dissenters were not permitted to hold the highest government offices. They could not work as doctors, lawyers, or professors. They were not allowed to study at British universities. They could not attend most lower schools. This was part of the reason why Elizabeth and her brothers and sisters did not go to school with other children, but studied instead with each other at home. As it happens, they got a better education that way, for Papa was particular about the governesses and tutors he employed. But the children's education, like their parents' politics and religion, isolated them from others.
The Blackwell family formed its own vigorous but nevertheless cut-off community. They remained somewhat apart, always partially turned in upon themselves, existing on the margins, separate.
Elizabeth spent the earliest years of her childhood in the city of Bristol, in the house on Wilson Street next door to Papa's refinery. Then, when the refinery was accidentally burned to the ground, as happened often in the sugar business, the family moved to a rambling house on Nelson Street. There, Papa's new refinery stood just across a walled-in courtyard. Each day, after their lessons, the children would go for at least one long walk. The Blackwells believed that knowledge of the natural world and vigorous physical exercise (as vigorous as the constricting clothing of the day would allow) were a crucial part of their children's education, a belief that must have struck their more conventional neighbors as just another piece of Blackwell craziness, especially in relation to the girls. It was not considered proper—or healthy—for girl children of their class to move too much.
Elizabeth dreamily wrote of "the daily walks with our governess into the lovely environs of the then small town. We became familiar with St. Vincent's Rocks and the Hot Wells, with Clifton Down and Leigh Woods, which were not built on then. The Suspension Bridge across the Avon was a thing of the future.... In another direction, Mother Pugsley's field, with its healing spring, leading out of Kingsdown Parade, was a favourite walk—for passing down the fine avenue of elms we stood at the great iron gates of Sir Richard Vaughan's place, to admire the peacocks, and then passed up the lane towards Redland, where violets grew on the grassy banks and natural curiosities could be collected. All these neighborhoods were delightfully free and open ..."
Freedom and openness—and then the return home to the house next door to a factory, and a pungent factory, at that. The sticky, sickly, cloying smell of sugarcane floated on the air the Blackwells breathed, making its way past the lilac and white jessamine that Hannah had planted in the courtyard. Some days the whole house smelled of cane.
Papa's factory was only one of many to spring up in those years when the industrial revolution was getting under way, shifting huge numbers of people from the country to the city. Men and women who might have been skilled craftspeople or farmers in earlier generations now became unskilled workers in industries like sugar refining. They crowded into cities to work, or to starve. The middle class—the factory owners—grew by leaps and bounds. So did the poor.
In Bristol in the 1830s, more than six hundred paupers lived in the poorhouse. There, fifty-eight girls shared ten beds, and eighteen beds accommodated seventy boys. The "poor laws" forced thousands of destitute parents to give up their small children, selling them into work-gangs that labored for less than a living wage or for no wage at all. Children as young as six worked. Women and girls were used in the coal mines as mules, hooked to coal carts that they dragged on hands and knees through passageways too narrow for anyone else to get through. Workers were at the mercy of their employers, who were supposed to treat them well—so the theory went—because it was in the employers' own best interest to do so.
Excerpted from Elizabeth Blackwell by Nancy Kline. Copyright © 1997 Nancy Kline. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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