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

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The story of three Victorian women who broke down barriers in the medical field to become the first women doctors, revolutionizing the way women receive health care.

In the early 1800s, women were dying in large numbers from treatable diseases because they avoided receiving medical care. Examinations performed by male doctors were often demeaning and even painful. In addition, women faced stigma from illness--a diagnosis could greatly limit their ability to find husbands, jobs or be received in polite society.

Motivated by personal loss and frustration over inadequate medical care, Elizabeth Blackwell, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Sophia Jex-Blake fought for a woman's place in the male-dominated medical field. For the first time ever, Women in White Coats tells the complete history of these three pioneering women who, despite countless obstacles, earned medical degrees and paved the way for other women to do the same. Though very different in personality and circumstance, together these women built women-run hospitals and teaching colleges--creating for the first time medical care for women by women.

368 pages, Hardcover

First published March 2, 2021

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About the author

Olivia Campbell

22 books116 followers
Olivia Campbell is author of the New York Times Bestseller WOMEN IN WHITE COATS. Her essays and journalism have appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, Washington Post, New York Magazine/The Cut, Smithsonian Magazine, Scientific American, HISTORY, and Literary Hub, among others. She lives outside Philadelphia with her husband, three sons, and two cats.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 434 reviews
Profile Image for Debbie W..
762 reviews570 followers
August 9, 2022
A well-researched and enlightening read about the history of women doctors, with a major focus on Elizabeth Blackwell, M.D., Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, M.D., and Sophia Jex-Blake, M.D.

In this book, I acquired a great many insights as author Olivia Campbell:
1. writes an easy-to-follow narrative without interrupting her writing flow with endless facts and figures; however, she does include a "Select Bibliography", "Notes on Sources" and an "Index" - totaling 52 pages;
2. gives a brief history of women as healers (including 300 years of witchcraft accusations) up to the Victorian era;
3. describes, in great detail, the roadblocks that these 3 women endured, physically, mentally and emotionally, from misogynists and sexists, both male and female, including Joseph Lister and Queen Victoria herself; and,
4. relates how these women demonstrated ambition, tenacity and perseverance, amid all of their trials and tribulations, going on to improve women's health, thereby changing the world!

Interesting note that Campbell states: "In 2017, for the first time ever in the US, there were more women medical students than men." Looks like women have come a long way!

Easy to read! Extremely informative! Highly recommend!
Profile Image for Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship.
1,162 reviews1,261 followers
July 2, 2021
2.5 stars

I have mixed feelings about this book, which has a fascinating topic, women breaking into the medical profession in the 19th century U.S. and U.K., but which is not particularly well-written or well-sourced.

This is a group biography of three medical pioneers: Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in the U.S. to earn an M.D. (in 1849); Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman in the U.K. to do likewise (more than a decade later); and Sophia Jex-Blake, another British woman who became a doctor not long afterwards, fought for women’s education and founded multiple medical schools for women.

Importantly, despite its subtitle, the book itself makes clear that these ladies were in no way the “first female doctors”: women have always treated the sick and wounded, and even within the narrow bounds of this book’s scope (the U.S. and U.K. in the 19th century), these women weren’t actually the first. See, for example, Martha Ballard and many like her, who functioned as doctors to the women and children of their community, though they had no formal training and were typically referred to as midwives; Margaret Bulkley aka James Barry, who disguised herself as a man beginning in the 1810s in order to obtain medical education and postings; and Harriot Hunt, who apprenticed as a doctor and opened a Boston practice in the 1830s without a medical license—which was actually perfectly acceptable at the time. The American Medical Association wasn’t even founded until 1847.

What set Blackwell, Garrett Anderson and Jex-Blake apart was that they specifically wanted to prove what women could do, obtain all available academic credentials in their fields, and open paths for other women to follow. (Blackwell specifically turned down a suggestion that she obtain a degree by going abroad in male disguise; nor did she pursue apprenticeship in lieu of a degree, though the author posits that one would have been easily available to her.) Money was not a pressing concern for them, and in fact none seem to have had a passion for medicine before settling on it as a worthy career path and opportunity to be trailblazers. All seem to have found it fascinating once they began, though they struggled to find schools willing to admit them, obtain licensure, and keep medical practices going in the face of widespread sexism.

At any rate, this book is a very informative look into the battles these women and their contemporaries had to fight for education and recognition, as well as into their lives and personalities. They were quite different from one another—Blackwell and Garrett Anderson were very focused on being good examples, while Jex-Blake was louder and more impulsive—and had very different personal lives: Blackwell remained single (seeming to see her attraction to men as something she needed to defeat) and adopted a young girl; Garrett Anderson married a man and had children (you can read about her daughter, also a surgeon, in the recent No Man's Land); and Jex-Blake found romantic partners in other women. While they all struggled to get an education, surprisingly this was much easier for the two pioneers. The “exceptional woman” whose existence, by virtue of the fact that she’s exceptional, doesn’t threaten the establishment, is very much in evidence here: men weren’t nearly as disturbed by one woman obtaining a medical license (especially if they could close the door after her) as by an entire cohort trying to do the same. Jex-Blake and her colleagues in Edinburgh faced actual riots from male students and locals at their medical school, and the same happened to groups of female medical students in the U.S.—which never happened to Blackwell or Garrett Anderson when they showed up alone.

That said, while I appreciated the information this book provided, the writing style is often clunky, conversational in a way that comes across as lacking in copyediting, and tends toward editorializing. For instance, Campbell frequently refers to male doctors freaking out at the idea of women entering the profession as “throwing tantrums”—perhaps not unfair and I get throwing back at men infantilizing language often used against women, but I tend to prefer my writing a bit less openly partisan. Also, the citation style is awful: citations aren’t linked to either page numbers or endnote numbers and so while they are there, it’s needlessly difficult to find the one you’re looking for. Some of the citations also raised my eyebrows: Wikipedia is one, as is Quackery, a humorous history for the general public which itself doesn’t cite any sources.

So it definitely has a rah-rah-girl-power tone, at the same time as treating her subjects a bit like, well, girls. Campbell is so committed to always referring to every women mentioned by her first name that, given two named Elizabeth, she calls Garrett Anderson “Lizzie” throughout. It's even stranger when applied to women who aren't prominent subjects (nevertheless Florence Nightengale is “Florence” and I struggled a bit in the sea of Marys, Maries, etc.). Meanwhile, she refers to men by their last names or as “Dr.” She doesn’t address the reasons for this, and it sits uneasily beside outrage at the lack of respect shown these women.

The book also tends toward oversimplifying, with many of its side issues not seeming well-researched. For instance, Campbell confidently asserts that J. Marion Sims (considered the father of modern gynecology) used anesthesia on white women but not black women, when there seems to be good historical evidence that he didn’t believe in anesthesia at all and particularly not when it was new, and she implies he performed experimental surgeries on healthy slave women rather than those who actually needed it. As with much of what she says, Campbell has a point—Sims’s choice of slaves for his experimental subjects was exploitative and based in racist beliefs—but she perhaps oversells it.

That said, I’m rounding up to three stars because I hadn’t read about these women before and I’m very glad that I did. This book makes for a decent biography of them as well as history of women trying to obtain medical training in these two countries generally, with many of their contemporaries also briefly discussed. My opinion might change after reading other books on the subject: The Doctors Blackwell (about Elizabeth and younger sister Emily) is on my list to read soon.


Edit: I read The Doctors Blackwell and did find it the better-written of the two, though it puts the Blackwell sisters more in the context of the Blackwell family than the larger drama of women fighting for medical education; Garrett Anderson and Jex-Blake are seen only briefly there. Also, while Campbell is a bit starry-eyed about her female pioneers, Nimura seems to rather dislike Elizabeth Blackwell. For those particularly interested in the topic, the books are different enough to read both without too much repetition.
Profile Image for Pat.
2,310 reviews429 followers
October 27, 2022
Non fiction

This was an extraordinary book, detailing the unimaginable hurdles placed before women who wanted to become doctors in the mid to late 19th century in both America and the UK. The sheer determination and courage displayed by these pioneering women cannot be overstated.

The author did a massive amount of research to pull this book together into a very readable and informative narrative. Although based totally on facts and real people the writing was nevertheless very engaging and kept my interest throughout. The references for the book are extensive and are Included at the end.

Sitting here in my 21st century comfort and being confident of getting excellent healthcare it is hard to imagine it was not always the case. The childish and ignorant reactions of most of the male medical students and teachers beggar belief and the lengths they went to went beyond harassment in many cases. It is really hard to for me to understand this amount of male entitlement. Yet the women reacted with grace and calmness.

This book was quite long as there was much material to cover and I doubt it will appeal to everyone because of its singular subject matter and lack of a plot per se. But if you ever wondered about the origins of many of our modern health practices you will find the answers within these pages. This book is a triumph for feminism and I really enjoyed it. Many thanks to Netgalley and Swift Press for the much appreciated arc which I reviewed voluntarily and honestly.
Profile Image for "Avonna.
1,203 reviews367 followers
June 24, 2022
WOMEN IN WHITE COATS: How the First Women Doctors Changed the World of Medicine by Olivia Campbell is a historical biography which follows the lives of three Victorian women who fight to earn MDs from universities in the early 1800’s.

This book follows Elizabeth Blackwell MD, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson MD, and Sophia Jex-Blake MD as they fought for first their medical educations and degrees against male prejudice and then strived to improve the health of women and children. Their determination opened doors and led the way for more women to follow.

I liked this book, but I was hoping for more. The determination of any trailblazer must be applauded, and these women’s accomplishments are astonishing as each did it in her own way in a repressive time period. The medical descriptions of practices and procedures in the Victorian era covered in this book are fascinating and it is a wonder anyone lived with some of the treatments given, but there is so much detail that the narrative gets bogged down in places. Also, as the story continues, there are friends and acquaintances added which leads to my having difficulty keeping track of who was doing what and where they were located without sometimes flipping back in the story.

This was an interesting biography of these determined women.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars (Rounded up)
Profile Image for Olive Fellows (abookolive).
613 reviews5,001 followers
November 30, 2021
This is an interesting and informative book that looks at the stories of three women who wanted to become doctors long before that was a socially acceptable idea.

Society was perfectly happy to accept women as nurses or perhaps even doctor's assistants, but for a woman to want to be a doctor and hold the authority at position offers - that was too much for far too many men in the Victorian era. But despite the resistance they faced, the three women highlighted in "Women in White Coats:" Elizabeth Blackwell, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, and Sophia Jex-Blake persisted in their efforts to get a proper medical education, hold a M.D., and making a living practicing medicine.

It was far from easy. Many schools refused to admit them, professors wouldn't hear of having a woman in the room when discussing topics deemed too grotesque for a woman's delicate brain. They were forced to endure ridicule and even outright harassment just for wanting to sit in a medical school classroom. Their exams were often harder or more numerous and getting the M.D. title was a whole other administrative battle with threats of lawsuits left and right.

Today, it's unbelievable that women once had to fight so hard to become doctors, especially since there are now just as many women doctors as men, if not more. No doubt, it's thanks to these and other women for making it possible for a woman to wear a white coat.

I really enjoyed reading these women's stories, although (as you could imagine) it could get infuriating hearing what these women had to go through. It was also heartbreaking learning that, before there were women doctors, many women wouldn't seek the medical treatment that they needed because they didn't feel comfortable talking to male doctor about the problems they were having. Sometimes it takes a woman to understand another women's pain, and the relief that the women patients felt to see a "lady doctor" brought a smile to my face.

I definitely recommend this one if you're interested in learning more about how women broke into the medical field! Thanks to the author for sending this book my way.
Profile Image for Steve.
579 reviews28 followers
November 15, 2020
Excellent look at the struggle of the first women doctors

I loved this book. It is written in a conversational tone and I found the book inspirational. Although there is some medical information in the book, the book is more about the women’s struggles. However, what medicine is discussed is explained very clearly. The book covers the contemporaneous social and political situations that makes for fascinating reading. Indeed, the book reads more like a novel than nonfiction. I recommend this book for anyone interested in the history of medicine or in the stories of women who spearheaded the movement to establish women as doctors.
Disclosure: I received an advance reader copy of this book via Edelweiss for review purposes.
Profile Image for The Cats’ Mother.
2,129 reviews139 followers
October 28, 2022
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.”

Thanks to NetGalley and Swift Press for the ARC. I am posting this honest review voluntarily. Women in White Coats is available now.
Profile Image for LibraryCin.
2,314 reviews49 followers
January 25, 2021
4.25 stars

This is mainly a biography of three of the first women doctors in the mid- to late-19th century, but also a history of the fight for the right of women to become doctors. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in the US to earn an MD, in the mid-1800s. It took a while longer, but Lizzie Garret was the first in England. Sophia Jax-Blake was not immediately next in the UK, but she worked hard fighting for the right of women to be able to earn that designation; she did get her MD later s well, but she also helped start up two women’s medical schools – in London and Edinburgh.

Every step of the way took months and years of hard work for these women to be able to earn that MD. With the stereotypes and fears of male doctors, professors, and medical students pushing back with excuses to deny them this. Before the women’s schools were set up, these women had to take classes (many privately, and at a much higher cost), as well as find a placement for clinical practice to gain that experience; very very difficult to do when most hospitals continually turned them down. There were some male doctors (and professors) who were sympathetic and did help out as much as they could.

I’ve left out so much of the struggles! This book is nonfiction, but it reads like fiction. Very readable. Oh, the frustration, though, at the male students, doctors, and professors! They call the women “delicate” and such, but as far as I can tell, the men were the “delicate” ones with their temper tantrums (the phrase entered my head even before she used it in the book!), not able to handle that there are women just as smart and can do the job just as well as they (possibly) could (although I do wonder about some of those men!). And these men were supposed to be trusted to tend to women’s health issues!? Ugh! (Many women at the time avoided, if possible, seeing male doctors for their ailments.) Many of the women students had better grades than the men, but of course, were never really acknowledged for it.
Profile Image for Denise.
2,010 reviews86 followers
March 13, 2021
There's one quote that stands out from the many others in this marvelous book about the first women doctors. "A woman must have uncommon sweetness of disposition and manners to be forgiven for possessing superior talents and acquirements" (Elizabeth Smith). Indeed, a familiar refrain echoes that well-behaved women seldom make history but readers are really probably looking for ladies who likely adhere to societal norms of femininity rather than the opposite.

Three women emerge during the Victorian Era in the early 1800s to forge a path to give women the opportunity to become doctors in the completely male dominated practice of medicine. Driven by ambition and a desire to achieve dreams for career and independence beyond was was available for women at the time, Elizabeth Blackwell, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Sophia Jex-Blake pursue extremely difficult challenges in their quest.

I've always been interested in health, disease, and medicine. I grew up in a large household with my father, a family physician, and my mother, a registered nurse, very open and knowledgeable about those subjects. One of the first books I read as a child was The First Woman Doctor: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell, M.D. (Scholastic Biography) by Rachel Baker published in 1972. Although highly motivated, I did not become a doctor after all, but spent 42 years as a registered nurse and watched women become more prominent in medicine and surgery. Reading this book gave me fits as I realized all of the obstacles that those first women doctors had to go through to get their education and to receive their MD registry. It's laughable and maddening how hard the male students, other physicians, and professors worked to keep women out of the universities and prevent them from receiving the training. How scared the men must have been to think that their whole superiority was based on nothing but the delusions of their own minds. The fact that these pioneers kept going in the face of it all is truly worth admiration and we who now benefit by having so many wonder female doctors need to be reminded of these trailblazers.

The writing was extremely detailed and the author does jump around a bit in time and place, but it was a very interesting read in the Biographies & Memoirs | History genre. I chose this to celebrate Women's History Month as I wanted to appreciate the accomplishments of these women who truly have made a difference in health care.

I'll end with these quotes to give you more to think about: "Recent research shows women may actually be better doctors. They are more likely to follow clinical guidelines and provide preventive care than their male counterparts." It's interesting that in 2017, in the US for the first time ever, there were more medical students that were female than male. "What a glorious rebuke to all those nasty Victorian nay-sayers who claimed women were entirely unfit to practice medicine."

Thank you to NetGalley and HARLEQUIN – Trade Publishing (U.S. & Canada) Park Row for this e-book ARC to read, review, and recommend.
Profile Image for Alexis.
60 reviews
February 1, 2021
Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this book via Goodreads giveaway.

This is an excellent read for anyone looking to gain a perspective on what it was like to be a female seeking a medical degree (or any college level education) in the 1800s. It's mind-blowing to read about the misogynistic opinions of most men (and even some women) during this time. Apparently women were too weak both mentally and physically to be allowed to obtain a medical degree. However, the three prominent women discussed in this book, Elizabeth Blackwell, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, and Sophia Jex-Blake, never backed down. As a female, it was very inspiring for me to read about these truly brave women. I'm so thankful for these women. Without them, I may not have the option to attend college at all.

I'm also very impressed at the extensive research Olivia Campbell must have done in order to complete this book. It is written in a fascinating way and never gets boring.
Profile Image for Lindsey.
189 reviews1 follower
February 6, 2021
Thank you to NetGalley and Park Row for providing me an e-arc of this book in exchange for an honest review

Women in White Coats tells of the struggles of the first women in America and the UK to obtain medical degrees and be seen as serious medical professionals. While it seemed to me that the author occasionally went off on unnecessary tangents, this book is very readable for a piece of non-fiction and tells a gripping story while also imparting a lot of information.

Although about the medical field, this book is as much about Victorian social customs and morality as it is about medicine. Women had to struggle against a patriarchal society to obtain medical degrees that were seen as valid and equal to the ones that men could receive. These pioneering women not only changed medicine—giving female patients female physicians that they could better relate to—but also set a president for all women to gain access to any means of higher education.

This is an interesting and insightful work about the perseverance of women fighting for equal rights to education and access to professional disciplines.
348 reviews20 followers
November 30, 2020
Read if you: Want a richly told acccount of the intelligent, brave, and determined women who forced open the door for women in medicine.

Librarians/booksellers: Women's history continues to be quite popular; having a medical history angle adds to the appeal for many readers. A strong purchase.

Many thanks to Harlequin and NetGalley for a digital review copy in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Karin.
1,413 reviews13 followers
March 21, 2023
This book has some good information and at times read fairly well, but the writing was very uneven and at times it felt like someone made editorial suggestions here and there were there were snippets that could have been pulled directly from a historical romance novel (eg's to follow). Sometimes it was just awkward, but at other times flowed. Given Campbell's literary credits, I primarily blame the editor(s) at Harlequin since I cannot imagine that she wrote like this for "The Atlantic, The Guardian, Washington Post, New York Magazine/The Cut, Smithsonian Magazine, Scientific American, and Literary Hub" in which her work has appeared.

It is popular now to write literary nonfiction to help people come alive, but this failed many times, especially with lines like "x would've thought" or "y must have felt" etc. I even checked the spine at one point because despite being in large print (what i could get my hands on quickly) it read like a young adult nonfiction book for younger teens many times.

Also, some parts had a plethora of unnecessary and jarring commas. From the first sentence of a paragraph Soon, she became quite actively involved... and in the midst of the previous paragraph, ...where women could earn professional academic qualifications. There, Sophia took classes...

Also, and one would never see this in a book about male doctors, for every main woman we got a full, long sentence on how she wore her hair that was just out of nowhere.

So, some "offending" quotes that have no place in a book such as this that are fictional since no one actually knows this that I can tell:

Short wisps of Elizabeth's wavy, reddish-blond hair escaped from its pulled-back confines and spilled across her forehead.
2 paragraphs later (and note the unneeded first comma)
This time, Elizabeth disagreed, finding it difficult to hide her shock behind her wide-set blue-gray eyes.

Now tell me, is this really a way to push back against the sexism that raged regarding women becoming doctors? What does this sort of thing communicate to a younger reader?

That said, there are a number of redeeming sections later on the book if you can avoid throwing it against the wall first. However, there are better books out there.
Profile Image for Lianna.
33 reviews
March 24, 2021
This was the first non-fiction book I've read for joy, not for school or academic reasons. And this one was just wonderful! This follows (mainly) three women in the late 19th century as they go against the American and British patriarchal medical culture to become the first female doctors. They were the trailblazers for female doctors everywhere, and their stories were filled with so many obstacles and hurdles they had to overcome to follow their dreams.

I felt that Olivia Campbell did a great job writing the histories of these women, putting everything in (mostly) chronological order, and presenting a wonderful image of these complex women. It didn't feel like I was reading historical facts, it truly felt like I was right there next to those women experiencing the same things with them. That right there is some great storytelling.

I also really appreciated how she didn't just stick to these women, she also delved into the future ramifications and impacts these women had on the medical field years later.
91 reviews
January 15, 2021
Fascinating and engaging. This is the history of three Victorian women and their journey to open the doors to becoming doctors not only for themselves but for women of the future. Many of these women were instrumental in developing the attributes of the modern day medical school in the United States including clinical practice. These driven and intelligent women overcame so many obstacles including a male dominated industry and society norms which barred their access to becoming medical doctors. They were also instrumental in providing medical care for women by women. Yes, women feel connected and understood by another woman when they want to discuss women's issues! Told in a beautiful narrative style that kept me reading. I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Maura Roo.
280 reviews10 followers
July 9, 2021
I already loved Elizabeth Blackwell, whose life story first sparked my interest in the medical field. After reading this book, I also love the other women whose histories are included. Women in White Coats is my favorite nonfiction of the year, hands down.
Profile Image for Gayle Noble.
1,616 reviews28 followers
October 24, 2022
This book looks at the stories of three women who were instrumental in paving the way for women to study at university & eventually become doctors. Elizabeth Blackwell, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, & Sophia Jex-Blake had the fortitude to withstand the professional prejudice against women joining the medical profession as other than nurses. It was a long hard road paved with many setbacks & disappointments along the way. At first they were treated as oddities, tolerated in the short term as it was believed they would soon give up & go back to their lives, but when it became clear that they were serious about making a living as doctors, things took a nasty turn.

It was argued that there was no demand for women doctors, & yet their patients, on the whole, welcomed being able to talk about private & embarrassing ailments to another woman. Then their detractors argued that women couldn't physically cope with rigorous study without making themselves ill, & when women passed the exams with honours & no ill effects, rumours were spread that the exams must have been basically 'dumbed down'. This along with actual physical attacks such as mud being thrown at the women by male students when they attended lectures showed just how threatened the all-male establishment was.

I had heard about the three main women featured before (mentioned above) & it was interesting to read more about their backgrounds & lives. I thought the author kept the narrative moving well & there was lots of details without it becoming too bogged down. It was kept fairly evenhanded on the subject of misogyny as there are plenty of examples of men supporting women in their endeavors, not just those against. On the other hand, there wasn't much analysis about class, which was one of the biggest social dividers of that time especially in the UK. Only women who came from rich families & who could afford to pay for private lessons & undertake quite a lot of international travel could afford to train. This was briefly mentioned but not examined in depth, likewise with the racism that pervaded early medical studies with the experiments & outright torture which was carried out on black women.

Of course, a book can only focus on so many aspects otherwise the main threads tend to get lost, but I feel that certain issues could have been explored in more depth. I found it an interesting, informative read overall though, & written in a way that allowed the reader to experience the highs & lows of the struggles of these women.

My thanks to NetGalley & publishers, Swift Press, for the opportunity to read an ARC.
Profile Image for Christy fictional_traits.
132 reviews111 followers
September 6, 2022
'Women in White Coats' is a well-researched book that describes the struggles the first women in both America and the United Kingdom went through in order to gain their professional medical accreditation. Olivia Campbell also provides historical context throughout so the reader gains a better understanding of why so many barriers waylaid their journey.

Given that women throughout history have often been the nurturers and caregivers for both their families and communities, it seems ludicrous that they were ousted from this role through the professionalisation of medical care. Worse, Campbell points out that, 'medicine for men of the time [19th Century], was the profession you went into after showing no particular aptitude for anything else'. To that end, 'medical students had a reputation for being rather wild'. No wonder men were so keen to keep the doors to medical schools closed to women! These pioneering women of medicine showed a dedication not only to learning their craft over a number of years but also as activists in the face of adversity.

Olivia Campbell's book takes us through the journey of these key women; their successes, struggles, and tidbits of their personal lives. Campbell not only concludes how fortunate women are to have benefited from their campaigning, but how humanity has benefited from the numerous discoveries women within the medical profession have made. While the overall story is both illuminating and inspiring, the pace at times is bogged down with unnecessary detail.

Thank you NetGalley and Swift Press for the opportunity to read and review this book.
Profile Image for Lormac.
526 reviews63 followers
May 31, 2022
This was a book club pick, and I gave a dedicated effort, but I finally stopped at 48%. The book covers the lives of three female physicians in the middle to late 1800s. It is a worthy topic, but there is little narrative thread, and I started to get the characters confused. Also, it is clearly a labor of love by the author who spends much time giving details and quoting bits of letters and newspaper articles which don't contribute to the main theme, but which makes this book a must for readers of feminist history who appreciate deeply researched coverage of this topic

Don't take my failure to finish this book a death sentence because women in the field of medicine may find this book much less tedious than I did and, in fact, inspiring. Part of the problem for me was that I had just read "Lessons in Chemistry" by Bonnie Garmus, which, although fiction, manages to make the problems of women in a field dominated my men much easier to read.
Profile Image for Beth.
1,017 reviews9 followers
January 3, 2021
Well written for the most part, if a bit dense and not flowing well in places. The stories of these women are detailed with both their personal and professional lives, with the former focused mostly on what led the women to decide to become doctors.
Profile Image for Dana.
8 reviews
April 14, 2023
Really interesting book about what the first professional women doctors went through to get a medical education, take the boards and get admitted to medical societies which were completely dominated by men. Brava to those women for their tireless insistence that women are not only capable but can excel at medicine.
Profile Image for Bec.
199 reviews
January 12, 2023
March 2, 2021 by Park Row
ISBN 9780778389392 (ISBN10: 0778389391)

“It is perfectly evident that the opposition to women physicians has rarely been based upon any sincere conviction that women could not be instructed in medicine, but upon an intense dislike to the idea that they should be so capable.”

Campbell's Women In White Coats: How the First Women Doctors Changed The World of Medicine was a rather long read, but I'm glad to have been introduced to these female medical pioneers: Elizabeth Blackwell, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Sophia Jex-Blake. They sought out the same University study and training that the men had available as a matter of course, then fought to sit for the same licensing exams as the male students, thereby granting them the right to call themselves MD's.

"Throughout the decades, women have continued to be the driving force behind medical advances of all kinds. If you’ve ever had chemotherapy, radiation treatment, open-heart surgery, fertility treatment, an X-ray, Pap smear, blood transfusion, Tdap vaccination, organ transplant, or been treated for diabetes, leukemia, malaria, herpes, gout, Alzheimer’s disease, cerebral palsy, Parkinson’s disease, or schizophrenia, then you’ve benefited from women in medical sciences."
--Campbell, Olivia. Women in White Coats

A solid 3 1/2 stars that I have rounded up to 4 stars
Profile Image for Brittany (whatbritreads).
648 reviews1,096 followers
September 30, 2021
*Thank you to the author for sending me a copy to review!*

This was a really interesting look at some figures in history I’ve never even heard of before. It was really well written and informative, I appreciated the way it got straight to the point.

Considering I knew next to nothing about the topic of medicine in this time period and only have a vague knowledge of women’s rights at the time, this helped paint a small picture. Obviously it goes into the topic of sexism a lot, but also classism, homophobia and racism. I would’ve liked to have gone more in depth with the intersectionality of the topic and the nuances, but I suppose then the book would have gone on forever. While I liked the focus on only three figures, they did start to blur in my head and the more I read I wasn't entirely following it and kept losing focus. I think that’s due to the way it’s formatted, but honestly I also don’t know how it could have been formatted any better.

I liked how the role of the church was also discussed here as holding up patriarchal standards. Sometimes it’s something that just completely slips my mind so it was an interesting dimension to factor in. It was pretty briefly discussed but definitely something I’d like to look more into. It also pointed out how development in medicine often came at the cost of exploiting African American women and experimenting on them which is an important thing to bring up, but I feel like this book could’ve gone further with highlighting racism in the time frame.

Though a lot of the book is pointing out how obviously misogynistic men were and how they primarily were the ones limiting and judging women, it also pointed out they were also shunned by other women who thought they were being ridiculous. It was a really strange thing to recognise how in the society they’d been brought up in, some women genuinely thought it was a ridiculous thought to want some sort of equality. There was also emphasis on the fact that by denying women into the medical field, it was putting women’s lives at risk who struggled with the only healthcare professionals available being male.

This book was just really interesting and if you’re interested in women’s rights or the progression of medicine, this will be an interesting book for you.

While I have all of this praise for it, I still think emotionally I just didn’t connect with it the way I wanted to. At times it felt a bit rushed and I was confused. Somehow it also felt at times at an intersection between fiction and non-fiction, the style of writing sometimes went astray and it didn't feel entirely authentic. I understand from the author��s notes Campbell had to do extensive research and piece it together to make this book, and that’s probably where that stems from. It was a good read, and taught me a lot.
Profile Image for S. Wigget.
770 reviews35 followers
May 30, 2022
Everyone's probably heard someone say that since the pandemic began, they have trouble concentrating on books or they don't feel like reading because they have trouble concentrating. Maybe it's just certain types of books. Hello, pandemic anxiety. I have trouble focusing on dry, academic books.

But that's not an issue with this history book: it's written for the general public.

"The president's of the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons typically came to present the prizes for the school's top students, but this year, after learning women were among the recipients, they declined to appear (p. 231)."

"Norton wrote to fourteen examining bodies requesting the school [Londom School of Medicine for Women] be placed on the list of recognized medical institutions. All declined (p. 276)."

Above are two of many examples. All the misogynistic harrassment and bigotry shown in this book reminds me of the history book Women of Ideas: And What Men Have Done to Them by Dale Spender. I wonder how common it is to get angry about such things even if they happened a long time ago. I figure misogyny is misogyny.

Um, "greedy, nefarious abortionists (p. 297)"?! What's with this book not saying anything to contradict or criticize such 19th century attitudes toward women who performed abortion? This comes up several times in the book--for instance, male doctors harboring an assumption that the only reason women want to become doctors is to be abortionists. While that doesn't describe the historical figures in this book, it's still a laudable motivation, obviously. The author strangely doesn't show any indication of disagreeing with those who diminish women who perform abortions.

The first time this came up in this book, the author should have at least supplied a paragraph with some background about abortion in the Victorian era. This is especially annoying nowadays.

It's been a long time since I read When Abortion Was A Crime, so it's fuzzy, though I remember reading that abortion was legal in the U. S. until the 1860s, thanks to... a pope. More recently, I began reading the book Jane Against the World, which briefly covers abortion in 19th century U. S. I'll definitely resume reading that book soon (and it's more about the 20th than the 19th century). I also have a book called Abortion in the American Imagination: Before Life and Choice, 1880-1940. And the book The Abortionist: A Woman Against the Law by Rickie Solinger. So many books to read.
Profile Image for Olivia.
64 reviews
January 30, 2021
Although not particularly interested in the medical field myself, I was quite excited to learn about the first women who worked as doctors. A point of clarification that is never really addressed is that this is not the history of the first female doctors anywhere, but rather some of the first in the US and UK. A quick search turns up the first female MD a century before the subjects of these books, as well as contemporaries in less Anglo countries. The three women focused on the book did lead interesting lives with an enormous amount of hardship they had to persist through to pursue their education and careers and pave the way for future female doctors. A surprisingly unaddressed subject in the book was the significant role these women's' race and class played in their ability to achieve what they did.
The jumping from character to character, with the introduction of many other related subjects, made the book hard for me to follow at times. I certainly learned a lot, although I don't know that I'd feel compelled to recommend this book to others. 2.5 stars
Profile Image for Kim.
675 reviews4 followers
March 28, 2022
Within the first pages of h this book, Olivia Campbell makes it clear that the first women physicians were true pioneers. However, it is the modern narrator’s voice that is audible rather than those of Blackwell, Garrett or Jex-Blake. From comments about bigotry and misogyny to a comment about “birthing people,” this book is colored by the author’s views and that makes it difficult to truly engage with the story. It is a shame, because it is extraordinarily well researched and well-told. It’s readable, but there are no tenterhooks to keep me turning the page to find out what will happen next.
Profile Image for Deborah.
244 reviews6 followers
May 10, 2021
I liked this book. But I did not love it. To be clear, I am not reviewing the people described, but the book it self. The women who are the subjects of this book were amazing women and should continued to be viewed as such. That being said, the writing of this book was a bit dry and hard to follow. The author had a tendency to go on tangents about side characters that did not really contribute to the story.
Profile Image for Debbie.
421 reviews8 followers
June 15, 2021
I listened to this book over a period of weeks, which meant that I frequently lost the narrative thread of the three women's lives - especially as they seemed to face the same problems over and over again.

Even so, it's a story worth telling. We can be thankful that these determined women persisted, and we can be grateful that doctors no longer
Profile Image for Lisa of Hopewell.
2,179 reviews61 followers
July 6, 2021
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

Reading notes only--not a review

"blow-back"? Really?? What is this, a blog post?
Very left, very feminist bias

"birthing people" in the mid-19th century????
Ok, I can give on "enslaved people"--that is fine, but "birthing people" when absolutely NO ONE thought anyone but a female/woman/mother could give birth.

Finally, a man is described as a "misogynist". It's like a bingo card reading this. Hygiene got "through the lens of" into the "narrative" lol. IF this was a drinking game.....still need "agency" used not as an organization--that's probably coming up somewhere or else I was too focused on traffic and missed it (audiobook)
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