Review: Women in White Coats by Olivia Campbell


My Interest

I like well-written nonfiction. That the book is the story of a  group of pioneering women makes it even more interesting.

The Story

Elizabeth Blackwell, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Sophia Jex-Blake were the trailblazers for women in medicine. In the United States and in the UK, these women struggled to obtain the education and the educational qualifications necessary to legally practice medicine.

Each woman’s individual story is told giving full details of how they managed to arrange the tuition necessary in the various sciences and to obtain permissions to attend lectures, see practice on hospital wards and visit homes in the cause of public health. Crossing and re-crossing the Atlantic, traversing the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, and venturing to the hallowed halls of the Sorbonne and of other European schools, the women were indefatigable in their quest to become doctors.

In an age in which merely being taught basic arithmetic was not a given for girls of any class, these women sought not only higher mathematics tuition, but teaching and practice of science, something they were considered “too delicate” or insufficiently intelligent to study. The same arguments were given for opposing women’s entry into medicine–aside from begrudging acceptance as nurses and midwives. While Blackwell found a loophole to scrape through and achieve registry with the Apothecaries, the others went through more hoops than anyone today would put up with–and usually just to be thwarted.

My Thoughts

Overall, this was a fascinating book. The women’s stories were engaging and the trials they faced were demanding. I was struck by the similarity in tactics (in some cases, not all) between the women and the students who integrated all-white Southern universities in the early 1960s. These women took the jeers, and catcalls, and all the rest. One even changed her diet to almost starvation, to avoid blushing. That is dedication to a cause. She was determined to hold to her decision not to raise to the bait.

Unfortunately, I thought the author did a disservice to her subject in a few ways though. She resorted to generalities, especially about men. She gave perhaps more attention than was needed to the women’s personal lives–so judicious cutting in this area would have helped. The story often seemed repetitive–it really wasn’t but because each women went through so many of the same trial or similar trials with similar institutions, it felt that way. A journalist by profession, Campbell can certainly spin a good story, but she went overboard trying to hold to the most “cutting edge” language of our day to describe the past.

What I mean by that is not only the hard-won elevation of “slaves” to enslaved people–and the women described deserved that term unreservedly for their heroism. If you thought Henrietta Lacks was treated horrendously, wait till you read about Alabama’s Antebellum version of Joseph Mengele (I am not slighting anything any one suffered in the Holocaust with this comparison. Read about these poor women and you’ll understand the hell the endured). That one I could understand completely. But writing of “birthing persons” instead of women or mothers in a mid-19 century hospital was absurd. No one in that era even gave a thought to the surgical and hormonal change of one sex/gender to the other. It sounded even sillier than it does in  modern usage (and it is silly, as are the ridiculous terms “chest feeding” or “menstruating persons”).

At times I felt like I was reading this in a game of “Woke Bingo.” Not only the “birthing persons” thing, but all the others–“through the lens of” and the obligatory description of a man as a “misogynist.” I nearly rolled my eyes out of action. How did she skip using “exercising agency”? Or. did I miss that in a fraught traffic moment (I was listening on my commute). All of this cheapened the book, as did silly phrases like “blow-back.” She detracted from the women’s story with this type of thing.

There were also lapses in rigor such as saying someone was “probably” the first women to enroll at St. Andrews University. “Probably?” Do you mean to tell me the University doesn’t know who its first woman student was? Or that you couldn’t Google the answer? Universities trot that sort of information out all the time for things like International Women’s Day. That was shoddy scholarship.

I cannot, this time, say these are “picky” things. They really did lessen the impact of the women’s stories. This was an important story to tell and one that today’s young women and girls need to hear. At a time when women almost (almost) take for granted that 50% of American medical students are female, those same students need to remember what it took to get them there.

My Verdict


Women in White Coats by Olivia Campbell

Fiction and Nonfiction Pairing

Anne Perry’s William Monk series is the perfect fictional counterpart to this book. Set in the same time period, in London, it features Hester Latterly, the female lead character. She is a well-born woman who trained as a nurse under Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War and feels stifled by the rigid rules of propriety in Victorian England. She wants to work and learn just like the women in Campbell’s book. Hester works tirelessly to advance the cause of access to high-quality medical care for all women and children regardless of income or morals–subjects well covered in the Women in White Coats story.

10 thoughts on “Review: Women in White Coats by Olivia Campbell

  1. sad the book wasn’t better written, on such an important topic. I just finished a fantastic nonfiction on another type of women in white coats: The Code Breaker, by Walter Isaacson, on Jennifer Doudna and CRISPR. This one is a gem, well, like any bio by Isaacson


  2. That’s a pity – I’m all about using inclusive language in my editing but I would never suggest those changes, but it might have been an over-zealous publisher. And the lack of proper research is certainly annoying – if that probably is really because no one knows, footnote and reference that no one knows!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Like Susan, I always like your “My Thoughts.” On this particular book, my thoughts align with yours regarding the use of terms like ‘birthing person.’ Also, I can’t stand it when the author or editor won’t take the time to do a bit of research. However, despite all this, I’d still find this book interesting and, like you said, it’s a good place to start reading about these heroic women in medicine.

    Liked by 1 person

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