The bookshelf of Bjoring Center director Dominique Tobbell.
The reading habits of medical historian Dominique Tobbell, director of the Bjoring Center for Nursing Historical Inquiry.

Centennial Distinguished Professor of Nursing and director of the Bjoring Center for Nursing Historical Inquiry


Dorothy Roberts’ Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (Knopf; 1998) documents the history of reproductive rights from the perspective of Black women: from enslavers’ economic stake in controlling enslaved women’s reproduction to the forced sterilization of Black women in the 1960s and 70s, to the 1990s, when policies compelled Black teens and poor mothers to have Norplant and Depo-Provera injected into their arms. The history of reproduction rights is complex, and the concept of reproductive justice is important for students to understand. The history of birth control isn’t just about women gaining reproductive control and autonomy, because for many women that simply isn’t true. One of my nursing students told me this book changed how she interacts with her patients. It really matters what history patients bring into the exam room, and what history you as a clinician bring.

I also love assigning Listen to Me Good: The Life Story of an Alabama Midwife (Ohio State University Press; 1996), which recounts the experiences of Black lay midwife Margaret Charles Smith, who navigated the growing legal restrictions that were placed on midwives from segregation through the Civil Rights movement. It shows students the importance, meaning, and community impacts of midwives’ healing knowledge and practices. I often contrast this book with historic texts written by public health officials, obstetricians, and public health nurses from the 1920s and 1930s who often blamed lay midwives for high infant and mortality rates. That juxtaposition gets students thinking critically about the ways in which clinicians wrote and talked about lay midwives at that time, making us aware of what has changed—and what hasn’t.


The pandemic forced me to shrink my syllabi, and zero in on themes of gender, race, disability by pairing of historical texts with modern-day examples. I use New York Times’ reporter Gina Kolata’s writing to show how systemic racism impacts the heath and healthcare of communities of color in a moment when there are so many profound racial disparities related to COVID.


I’m particularly excited about the Nancy Milio and Caroline Benoist collections because of what they show about nurses’ work in underserved communities. I’m fascinated, too, by the Doris Glick collection, which offers a look at Charlottesville’s nurse-led clinics in the 1990s, and the history center’s growing and robust collection of materials related to the history of nurse practitioners.


My ‘fun’ reading hasn’t changed a bit since I was in high school: I still love detective novels, medical, and legal thrillers. Robin Cook, Gillian Flynn, Michael Crichton—especially The Andromeda Strain (Knopf; 1969) and Next (HarperCollins; 2006) are some of my favorites, and I’ve read almost all of John Sanford’s books, too. I love that his protagonists are in Minnesota, where I live until later this summer when I move to Charlottesville; it’s fun for me to think, ‘Oh, I’ve been to that place.’


I have a recliner that I love; my animals love it, too, including my cat Ajax; it’s the best seat in the house.

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