Olivia Campbell of the Hidden Figures and Radium Girls fame did it again, with her new book – Women in White Coats. Her book is a gripping story of the intertwined stories of three trailblazing women, Elizabeth Blackwell, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Sophia Jex-Blake, who were the first to earn medical degrees. The story began not so long ago – it was only ~175 years ago in 1845 in suburban Cincinnati when Elizabeth Blackwell visited a dying friend who was suffering from advanced uterine cancer. Women in those days hesitated to go to the doctors who were all male. The men looked at the women’s eyes while examining the women’s private parts; the norms of the Victorian era prohibited them from looking at the genitalia directly. The male doctors made the women even more uncomfortable than they were coming in. Elizabeth’s decision to pursue a medical degree came from conversations with her friend who wished she had a female doctor to go to. Her family, neighbors and most friends were vehemently against the idea.
The idea of a woman pursuing a medical degree was so outrageously novel that it offended most people in those days. Famous people who dissuaded Elizabeth included Harriet Beecher Stowe of the Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame who thought it was “impracticable” and Florence Nightingale who thought women are more suitable for nursing and should be “content” with being nurses and not wish to become doctors. Even so, Elizabeth herself thought less of other women and that they are not capable of becoming doctors. In 1858, in a coastal English town, a different Elizabeth, who goes by Lizzie, was struck by an article in the English Woman’s Journal on Elizabeth Blackwell, MD, who would be touring England in January 1859 and giving the lecture, “Medicine as a Profession for Ladies.” Elizabeth Garrett followed her on the tour and decided to pursue a medical degree. Her greatest ally was her own father who came on board after a lot of initial resistance. Like Elizabeth, Lizzie encounters several rejections, insults, prejudiced responses and other obstacles while pursuing the necessary didactic coursework and clinical rotations. Lizzie ends up paying 10 times more for tutoring than her male counterparts. Unlike Elizabeth who never married, Lizzie turns out to be a heartbreaker of sorts and ends up turning down several marriage proposals before she eventually says “yes” to the one. Her marriage receives a public scrutiny, with the British Medical Journal saying that her marriage would be a very public test of women’s capabilities. The Lancet published, “If she succeeds in combining the two functions of mistress of a household and medical practitioner, she will have performed a feat unprecedented in professional history.” Sophia met Lizzie in the feminist circles in England and chose to pursue a medical degree after initially wanting to become an educator and open a women’s school. She does eventually open a medical school for women, after a long arduous road filled with coursework and clinical rotations towards a medical degree which does not become hers for a very long time. Sophia is part of the Edinburgh Seven, a group of seven women who were refused medical degrees by the University of Edinburgh. The university eventually granted them MD degrees posthumously after 150 years in 2019! All three women published in medical journals, started medical colleges for women, and established infirmaries for women and the poor during their careers.
I feel this book is a must read for anyone wanting to understand issues of gender equity in medicine. That their stories happened not so long ago – they were all ~150-175 years ago, which is not that long in the history of humanity and definitely not that long in terms of the pace at which cultures and attitudes change towards anything, gave me the chills and goosebumps. Even as trailblazers, these women were not perfect, and each had her share of flaws, and there is plenty of infighting among these women who shared similar struggles and worked towards a common cause, leaving one to say, “if only” more than a few times. It’s more like we would be wrong in expecting them to be perfect in our eyes, and we universally owe them a deep debt of gratitude for paving the way for a whole lot more women to become doctors. More importantly, their efforts didn’t just result in more women becoming doctors. As Olivia Campbell rightly points out towards the end of her book – “If you’ve ever had chemotherapy, radiation treatment, open-heart surgery, fertility treatment, …., then you’ve benefited from women in medical sciences.”