Olivia Campbell, “Women in White Coats: How the First Women Doctors Changed the World of Medicine”

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

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

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March 2021: A Note from Hope Katz Gibbs, founder, Inkandescent PR + Publishing Co. — What an honor it to interview Olivia Campbell, a journalist and author specializing in medicine and women. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Washington Post, New York Magazine, and The Cut, among others. Her new book is Women in White Coats: How the First Women Doctors Changed the World of Medicine. It will be featured in an upcoming issue of The Costco Connection. I have been writing for this monthly magazine since 1996 and have the privilege of writing this author’s interview article about Olivia in the March 2022 issue. Click here to check it out!

I also had the chance to do a podcast and video interview with Olivia (see above). You’ll learn:

  • All about Olivia’s career as a journalist and author who specializes in writing about medicine, women, history, and nature
  • How and when she knew she wanted to pursue this topic as a book
  • What in her research surprised her most
  • What delighted her, and what upset her
  • Any misconceptions about early women doctors that she wants to set straight
  • Lessons that contemporary physicians can learn from the three women doctors featured in the book
  • What she wants all of us, as patients, to know about doctors and medicine

Scroll down for our Q&A! 

First, here’s more about Women in White Coats: How the First Women Doctors Changed the World of Medicine: For fans of Hidden Figures and Radium Girls comes the remarkable 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 significantly 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, 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. With gripping storytelling based on extensive research and access to archival documents, Women in White Coats tells the courageous history these women made by becoming doctors, detailing the boundaries they broke of gender and science to reshape how we receive medical care today.

About Olivia: “I started writing as a young girl — mysteries fashioned after her beloved Nancy Drew,” noting that as a teen, her passion for ballet saw her train to become a professional dancer. A broken foot prompted Campbell’s pivot to arts journalism. In college, an unplanned pregnancy, complicated birth, and postpartum depression turned her writing interest from the arts to medicine. Today, she is an independent journalist, essayist, and author focusing on the intersections of medicine, women, history, and nature. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, New York Magazine/The Cut, HISTORY, The Washington Post, The Guardian, SELF, Aeon, Scientific American, Smithsonian Magazine, Literary Hub, Atlas Obscura, Good Housekeeping, Catapult, Parents, and Undark, among others. Olivia holds a master’s degree in nonfiction science writing from Johns Hopkins University and an undergraduate degree in journalism from Virginia Commonwealth University. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers. Campbell lives in the Philadelphia suburbs along with her husband, three sons, and two beloved cats. Learn more at ocampbellwriter.com.


Inkandescent Women: Tell us more about your career as a journalist and author who specializes in writing about medicine, women, history, and nature.

Olivia: I used to be a ballet dancer, but I broke my foot during class in college and decided to switch my major to journalism. I got unintentionally pregnant in my junior year and raced to graduate before giving birth. My traumatic childbirth experience and postpartum depression turned my writing focus from the arts to women’s health. I began freelancing right out of school and later attended Johns Hopkins University to pursue my master’s degree in science writing.

Inkandescent Women: How and when did you know you wanted to pursue this topic as a book?

Olivia: This first thing I read about women physicians in the Victorian era was a riot near where I live in Philadelphia. The administrators of the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania had spent years petitioning the Pennsylvania Hospital to allow their students to attend clinical lectures as the male medical students did. When they finally relented, 300 men were awaiting the women in the surgical amphitheater. They hurled spitballs and epithets, tobacco spit and insults. The women had to remain steadfast and take the abuse to prove they would not be scared away so easily. I started digging into the reasons why these women chose to go into medicine; many of them spoke of complicated pregnancies, difficult births, loss of a child at birth or in infancy, loss of a relative or friend in childbirth, or a loved one who was left frail or ill from frequent childbirth. Seeing how childbirth had also been the catalyst for a radical shift in their life and career path, I felt a deep kinship with them.

Inkandescent Women: What about your research surprised you most? What delighted you, and what upset you? 

Olivia: I was surprised by how terribly these women’s families reacted to their aspirations and career goals. Declaring interest in attending medical school or becoming a physician saw many young women disowned, or their family members flying into rages or depressive episodes. I was also surprised by how little training went into earning a medical degree in America during this era.

I loved how each of the three women I focus on had a moment when they were worried about how they would react to their first experience of human dissection or surgery — they feared that society might be right, that as women, they wouldn’t be able to handle these more gruesome aspects of medical training and practice — but each of them reported that rather than being disgusting, they found the inner workings of the human body exquisitely beautiful. They were enamored with its delicate, complicated engineering.

I was upset by the lengths men went to to try to keep women out of medicine, by how many violent riots men instigated when women dared to show up in what the men viewed as their spaces.

Inkandescent Women: What misconceptions about early women doctors do you want to set straight?

Olivia: As I’ve been speaking about my book, I’ve noticed many people assume the first women MDs were those in the early 1900s Western American frontier. So I think one major misconception is that women MDs didn’t exist until then. Another misconception is that early women doctors only practiced midwifery. While it’s true that most of these women only practiced medicine on women and children, they treated the full gamut of illnesses, disorders, and injuries, just as any other doctor would’ve. In addition to delivering babies, they performed surgical removal of cancers, dealt with infectious disease epidemics, and treated any and all chronic and acute ailments their patients presented with. These women popularized preventative medicine, social workers, prenatal care, antiseptic practices, and other cutting-edge medical ideas.

Inkandescent Women: What lessons do you think contemporary physicians can learn from the three women doctors featured in your book?

Olivia: I hope that hearing the history of what women had to endure to become doctors can help all modern medical professionals realize the importance of continuing to advocate for more opportunities for women. Women are underrepresented in leadership positions in medicine, both at universities and medical institutions. There are also several medical specialties that remain “boy’s clubs,” and too many women doctors who report experiencing sexism.

Inkandescent Women: What do you want all of us, as patients, to know about doctors and medicine?

Olivia: I think it’s important to remember how young medicine as we know it is. This period of the late 1800s is a really fascinating time in the history of medicine because it was a time of great innovation and discovery when the dark ages of blood-letting, purging, and unmedicated surgery medicine gave way to the light of antisepsis, anesthesia, germ theory, and medications that actually worked without poisoning you. When you look at how far medicine has come in such a short period of time, it’s nothing short of miraculous. Be thankful you don’t live in a time when fever or papercut might spell the end of your life.

Click here to buy your copy of “Women in White Coats.” And click here to learn more about truly amazing Olivia Cambell.