In the early 1800s, women’s access to meaningful healthcare was grim, with many dying from diseases curable re. Because, for the most part, they weren’t allowed to attend medical schools, female physicians were unheard of, and women often avoided male doctors. Some didn’t want to be examined by men, and others were afraid that a diagnosis would ruin their marriage prospects. Three brave souls — Elizabeth Blackwell, Elizabeth (Lizzie) Garrett-Anderson, and Sophia Jex-Blake — set off to change that. Despite societal reproof, discrimination and countless obstacles, they proved their ability to practice medicine and founded women-run hospitals and medical schools that trained female physicians.

Writer Olivia Campbell chronicles their journeys, which spanned from Europe to the United States and back, in her upcoming book, Women in White Coats: How the First Women Doctors Changed the World of Medicine (Park Row). Medical Bag spoke to Campbell about her inspiration and interest in the subject.

What motivated you to write a book about these women?

I read about male students rioting in Philadelphia and Edinburgh, Scotland, against women wanting to attend school alongside them. In the 1869 America, male students at the Philadelphia Hospital hurled spitballs and obscenities at the students from Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania who came to attend a lecture alongside them. A year later in Scotland, a mob of about 200 male students threw mud, rotten eggs and trash at what became known as the Edinburgh Seven — seven female medical students who began attending the school, and Sophia Jex-Blake was one of them. The riots were a year apart, and I thought that was fascinating — two parallels, two schools, two different countries at about the same time. The men didn’t want women to study medicine.  Moreover, the entire medical and societal doctrine declared women unfit to study. These three women transcended that barrier, and I wanted to tell a story of how they came together to make medical school possible for other women.


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Why were women considered unfit to study?

The Victorian medical views originated from the teachings of ancient Greece, which believed that inside every person there’s a creature that drives them to have sex. Inside women, that was the uterus, which craved not only sex but also semen and could be fully satisfied only when pregnant. If a woman spent too long a time without carrying a child, her uterus, called hystera in Greek, became bored and started causing health problems, from heart palpitations to hysterics. Even though women’s health issues were usually caused by malnutrition, pregnancies and poor work conditions, their entire nature was believed to be controlled by their uterus. They weren’t supposed to go to school because studying was too taxing on their minds — they would use their energy on their brain instead of their uterus.

Throughout history, women always helped people heal, nursing everyone — from ill children to wounded soldiers — back to health. Why was there so much mistrust in women’s ability to be doctors?

Women were practicing healing arts everywhere in the world throughout history — they were herbalists and healers and shamans. But when the church decided to make medicine an official profession and started establishing universities where one could get medical degrees and licenses to practice, they began to prosecute women. That’s when they started witch-hunting campaigns, accusing women of witchcraft. Scared of being burned at the stake, women stopped practicing medicine. Essentially, this was the patriarchal control establishing the fact that medicine is a man’s job. The men rioted against women studying because they were scared of the competition. And they used the faulty science to keep their monopoly.

How did these three unwavering women change the field of medicine?

They became doctors at the time when women couldn’t go to school, but they had to fight every step of the way, so they decided to create schools specifically for women.

Elizabeth was the first, sort of the grandmother of the movement, and the other two came later, inspired by her example. In 1847, Elizabeth was accepted to Geneva Medical College in Geneva, New York, essentially by mistake. When male students voted whether to accept the first female student, they thought it was a joke, so they voted in favor of acceptance. Sophia persuaded University of Edinburgh professors to admit her along with six others, which eventually led to riots. Lizzie attended several schools, but each would kick her out after some time, so she studied privately with physicians and eventually managed to get a license. The three women’s paths crossed at different times, in the United States and England. Ultimately, Elizabeth started a medical school for women in New York, and together the three created the London School for Women.  They also established women-run hospitals. They even performed surgery, such as removing breast cancer. They proved to the world that women could be doctors and surgeons.

Even today, it’s hard for women in medicine to keep the life-work balance. How did your three trailblazers manage that challenge? 

At the time, being independent women defeating societal norms pretty much ruined your marriage chances. Elizabeth never married, but she adopted a daughter. Sophia was a lesbian, who had a partner when she was young, but they parted ways — and later in life she lived with another one. Lizzie had four marriage proposals and accepted one. She and her husband had a very progressive relationship — two people going to work was a very modern idea at the time, especially when one of them was pregnant. Lizzie had three children, two of whom survived, and her daughter pioneered the idea of women doctors treating men. So Lizzie was the proof that a female physician could indeed have it all — just like so many women do today.