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Women in White Coats: How the First Women Doctors Changed the World of Medicine

Friday, May 6, 2022

Women in White Coats: How the First Women Doctors Changed the World of Medicine (2021) Olivia Campbell

Although primarily about three women: Elizabeth Blackwell, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Sophia Jex-Blake, other women who were among the first to attend (or attempt to attend) medical school.

Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to receive a medical degree in the US, and the first woman on the Medical Register of the General Medical Council in Great Britain. But as there are biographies about her as the first, more time is spent on Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Sophia Jex-Blake.

The book opens with a prologue that lists women doctors, going back to the 4th century BCE, as well as discussing how men came do dominate the field.

The Church controlled most university medical schools and wanted to ensure they also monopolized its practice. Between 1400 and 1700, the Catholic and Lutheran churches executed a massive campaign to rid Europe of wise women, branding them witches or sorceresses— even the nuns! They reasoned that only through God could a person be healed, and since women weren’t ordained by Him to wield such powers, their ability to make sick people well must originate from the devil.

The story briefly covers the state of medicine at the time (frankly, terrifying).

Around midcentury, it only took two years to complete a degree at most American medical schools, and your training may or may not have included any practical or clinical experience, depending on the school. In Europe, by contrast, a medical degree took about four years to achieve.

Having a uterus meant being prone to fits of wild hysteria, dreadful melancholy. Why, if a woman rode a train going over fifty miles per hour, her uterus would fly out of her body!

And (enrageingly) how men worked to closed the doors through which Elizabeth Blackwell slipped.

“No woman of true delicacy would be willing in the presence of men to listen to the discussion of the subjects that come under the consideration of the student of medicine. We object to having the company of any female forced upon us.” Harvard’s subsequent policy forbidding women students remained in effect until 1945.

she wouldn’t be able to do as Lizzie did and piece together private instruction to present to the Apothecaries. The loophole Lizzie slipped through had been immediately closed. After Lizzie passed its exam, the Society of Apothecaries changed its rules to now only allow certificates of instruction from recognized medical schools.

To be honest, that Lizzie grated on my nerves throughout the book. The author used it to differentiate between Elizabeth Blackwell and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, but considering we are talking about women who had to fight to be recognized as adults capable of practicing medicine, using a diminutive struck me as the wrong tack.

I was also a it taken aback by her dismissal of Elise Inglis.

Elsie Inglis, one of Sophia’s brightest students, decided to establish a rival institution, the Medical College for Women. Other students were convinced to defect, and the Cadells also joined them. Sophia’s school couldn’t compete and soon folded.

Now, it’s Elsie who’s remembered in Edinburgh: a display celebrating her in the Surgeons’ Hall Museum, a building and a quadrangle named after her at the University of Edinburgh, a plaque at the city’s central library, a maternity hospital bearing her name. Yes, her legacy as suffragist surgeon, war doctor in Serbia, and founder of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service is deservingly laudable…

Considering that I haven’t been able to find a book about Elise Inglis or the Scottish Women’s Hospitals and their work in WWI. Considering that a year ago I knew nothing about the Endell Street Hospital or the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service and WW1 Field Hospitals, I find her dismissal of Elise Inglis rather disconcerting.

Yes, Sophie Jex-Blake did create a medical school and was one of the first three women doctors and the leader of the Edinburgh Seven, but she also seemingly sabotaged herself with regard to further accomplishments. She is a complicated figure, truly–and that’s great, because humans ARE complex and complicated. But the dismissal of someone who accomplished so much (along with barely mentioning Louisa and Flora Murray?

Lizzie’s daughter Louisa grew up to become an accomplished surgeon after attending the London School of Medicine for Women. She and fellow alum Flora Murray founded a hospital for women and children in a working-class London neighborhood. The pair also created a military hospital during World War I that paved the way for women to treat adult male patients.

It just bugged me is all.

So, I learned a great deal, but overall I found it nowhere near as strong a book as No Man’s Land. And I’d far rather a book on Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler than one on Sophie Jax-Blake.

Publisher: Park Row

Rating: 6/10

Categories: Biography, British, eBook, Female, Good Cover, History, Non-Fiction, Queer


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