Women in White Coats, a review by Joanna

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Women in White Coats

Olivia Campbell

Swift Press

Published on October 20th, 2022

368 pages


Women in White Coats is a fascinating true account of the struggles of three Victorian era women who fought to become the first to achieve medical degrees in the US and UK, paving the way for all of us who followed. Elizabeth Blackwell, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Garrett Anderson, and Sophia Jex-Blake each had different reasons for wanting to become doctors, and took different paths, but each faced disbelief, hostility, and sometimes downright thuggery from an establishment determined to protect its own interests. This meticulously researched biography tells their stories in a chatty accessible style that emphasised their diverse personalities and explores the relationships between them, as well as the background culture opposing them.

The author stresses repeatedly that Elizabeth, Lizzie and Sophia were not the first female health practitioners or even doctors – women have been delivering healthcare for millennia – but they were the first to insist on obtaining the recognised training and qualifications that would give them the legitimacy to practice independently. Their initial motivation was the dreadful lack of care available to women suffering from diseases that made seeing male doctors too daunting. While initially it was expected that they would focus exclusively on gynaecology and obstetrics/midwifery, Campbell tells how they became skilled healers, surgeons and educators themselves. Their passion, energy and drive was extraordinary.

When I graduated from Edinburgh University Medical School in 1993, our class was evenly split between males and females, and throughout my career I have never felt discriminated against because of my gender. I was therefore horrified and ashamed to discover that my alma mater was one of the worst institutions when it came to blocking the women’s path to qualification. Encouraged by a handful of powerful misogynists, the male students organised a frightening and sustained campaign of abuse, threats and even physical violence to try and prevent the “Edinburgh Seven” attending classes, and when that failed, the powers-that-be used the full extent of the law to prevent them achieving the qualifications they had worked so hard for. The fact that it took until 2019 to redress this is appalling.
This is a long book, and while it was easy to read, with an omniscient narrative style that felt more like fiction than dry biography at times, it did sometimes go round in circles between the featured women, often covering the same ground repeatedly. There is a long bibliography and references section which takes up the last 15%. The descriptions of treatments used at the time show how far we have come. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of either feminism or medicine and to all Lady Doctors who owe their careers to these brave women.
My favourite quote is right at the end: “A world where only men are physicians seems almost unimaginable today. Were it not for these ambitious, tenacious, and incredibly persistent women, we might still be living in such a world. They could have easily given up their quest at any point and no one could’ve blamed them, but they never once wavered. We have these women to thank for the fact that today, when a little girl dreams of becoming a doctor, that dream can become a reality.”

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