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posted Friday, March 26, 2021 - Volume 40 Issue 13
Women in White Coats: How the First Women Doctors Changed the World of Medicine
Section One
ALL STORIES
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Women in White Coats: How the First Women Doctors Changed the World of Medicine

by Terri Schlichenmeyer - Special to the SGN

OLIVIA CAMPBELL
WOMEN IN WHITE COATS: HOW THE FIRST WOMEN DOCTORS CHANGED THE WORLD OF MEDICINE
Park Row Books
$27.99/$34.99 Canada
368 pages


Nobody'd better ever tell you that you can't.

It's like instructing you to at least try. It's like waving a ten-foot-tall neon flag that says "DO IT" right in your face. When you're told you can't, you just double down and make it happen. And in the new book Women in White Coats by Olivia Campbell, that kind of thing opens doors.

Elizabeth Blackwell comforted her friend as best she could, but the fact of the matter was that Mary Donaldson probably had uterine cancer and was dying.

It was 1845, in Cincinnati, Ohio, but it could have happened anywhere. Medical care for women then was lacking because of Victorian attitudes, myths, and medical ignorance; nudity was taboo, so most physicians avoided looking at unclothed female bodies. Mary, wishing aloud for a "lady doctor," urged Elizabeth to study medicine.

Says Campbell, Elizabeth "was initially repulsed by the prospect," because being a doctor was "a gruesome business" and definitely not for a lady's delicate sensibilities. But the more Elizabeth thought about it, the more the idea appealed to her. And so she applied to many medical schools and was turned away almost everywhere.

More than a decade later, 21-year-old Lizzie Garrett was wrestling with a similar issue in England. There were lady doctors by then, but only a handful. Medical school officials were starting to accept the idea of women doctors - they could see the advantages - but naysayers still existed. Undaunted, and encouraged by her friend Sophia Jex-Blake, Lizzie continued to try to get her MD.

Sophia had always dreamed of opening a boarding school for young women like her, outspoken women who didn't fit the Victorian norm, but by watching her friend Lizzie, and by working alongside her as a nurse, Sophia came to realize how much she, too, genuinely loved medicine. Alas, women in Great Britain were still often denied the necessary formal schooling.

In America, Elizabeth Blackwell recognized this issue too. To have more women in medicine, she knew, women should have a medical college just for them. And so she began to plan one...

Women in White Coats is a very good, quite astounding story, but for one thing: the collective triple-tale can feel like much of the same. But hold on....

Readers are individually introduced to each of Campbell's main subjects in solid, tight chapters that offer good background, making it easy to find admiration for them. Were any of these women alive today and facing similar barriers, they'd be lauded on cable news as the groundbreakers they were.

Indeed, given the accompanying and relevant history, society, and medicine - some of which is shocking - readers will clearly see the uphill climb that Blackwell, Garrett, and Jax-Blake faced, fights you might be tempted to disbelieve without Campbell's deft storytelling.

So yes, there's repetition here. No doubt about it, but it's necessary to show these women's perseverance, conviction, and strength. For that, if you think you can resist Women in White Coats once you start it, well, you can't.

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