Olivia Campbell
Olivia Campbell. Her book, "Women in White Coats," has received critical acclaim since it published last year. (Courtesy photo)

Olivia Campbell, a VCU alum, tells the inspiring story of the first female doctors

Campbell’s ‘Women in White Coats’ recounts the crucial moment ‘when women doctors demanded the right to heal and be healed.’

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Olivia Campbell came to Virginia Commonwealth University as a dance major. After she broke her foot in class, though, she decided to shift her focus to a less physically demanding pursuit. She liked writing and switched to journalism to see if it was a fit.

“I absolutely loved it,” she said.

Campbell started with arts journalism, a natural inroad from her dance background, and served as the arts and culture editor of The Commonwealth Times. Then, in her senior year, she got pregnant. Despite a difficult pregnancy, she managed to complete her classes and graduate on time. Following graduation, Campbell began working as a freelance journalist. Her pregnancy challenges and the subsequent postpartum depression she battled steered her into an interest in women’s health, and she began to specialize in writing about that topic, alongside other science-related issues.

“I wanted to know more about the experience that I’d had and why I wasn’t able to find out more about it,” Campbell said. “That really opened up the world of women’s health journalism to me, and it’s been a great beat.”

Campbell’s work and interests culminated last year with the publication of Women in White Coats: How the First Women Doctors Changed the World of Medicine,” a book that tells the story of three pioneering Victorian women — Elizabeth Blackwell, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Sophia Jex-Blake — who earned medical degrees despite a series of seemingly insurmountable obstacles and paved the way for other women to do the same. Each woman was at the center of the establishment of women-run hospitals and teaching colleges that introduced the concept of medical care for women by women.

The hardcover edition of Olivia Campbell's \"Women in White Coats,\" published in 2021.
The hardcover edition of Olivia Campbell's "Women in White Coats," published in 2021.

Campbell’s research sent her to dig through archives in New York, London and Edinburgh, poring through letters, diaries and published material to learn as much as she could about the women at the center of her story. The doctors’ emergence came at a time when women were dying in large numbers from treatable diseases because they routinely avoided medical care, which often featured demeaning and painful examinations by male doctors.

Blackwell, Anderson, Jex-Blake and many other of the earliest female doctors were inspired to study women’s health because of their own experiences — just like Campbell was.

“When I read about these women for this book and why they got into medicine, I learned that so many of them did it because they’d experienced a difficult childbirth or even the loss of a child,” Campbell said. “I felt really connected to them for those reasons. I felt a kinship with them, and that fueled my interest in wanting to learn more about them and their experiences.”

The result is “an entertaining account [that] adds a valuable chapter to the history of women and medicine,” according to Publishers Weekly. Claire L. Evans, author of “Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet,” said Campbell’s book is “an engrossing portrait of a transformative moment in Victorian medicine, when women doctors demanded the right to heal and be healed. Their battle was collective, and their hard-won triumph is ours. ‘Women in White Coats’ is a timely reminder of just how many hands it takes to move mountains.”

Campbell said the response to the book has been “incredible.” She’s spoken widely since its publication, including at the National Book Festival — an experience she called “jaw dropping.” Among the more rewarding moments was speaking to students in one of the journalism classes of Mary Ann Owens, an instructor in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences at VCU and one of Campbell’s former teachers. While speaking to the class, Campbell revealed that she’d dedicated the book to Owens, bringing her mentor to tears.

Campbell spoke to VCU News about her book and career.

You’ve worked for years as a freelance journalist. How did you make the transition to author?

I’d never really thought about writing a book. I was busy trying to make it as a freelancer, working article to article basically, trying to make enough to get by. After one of my essays got published, I had multiple agents reach out to me and say, “Hey, this piece is really interesting. Do you have any longer works? Do you have a book-length idea?” It felt like someone was giving me permission to say, “You can write a book. You can do this.” That was key for me.

What was the piece that attracted the attention of agents?

I wrote an essay for Literary Hub about climate change in the Black Forest in Germany. I'd seen a news piece about how climate change was changing the nature of the trees in the Black Forest, changing what types of trees were going to survive, and that got me thinking about how that's where the Brothers Grimm collected their stories — that’s the forest that inspired those tales. So, I thought about how climate change was going to be changing all of our landscapes, and how that would affect the stories that came out of those landscapes. I think people responded to the piece because it combined culture and science and made them think about something they hadn’t thought about before.

How did you arrive at the basis for this book?

I had read about a riot from years ago at a Philadelphia hospital that is near where I live now. The riot was over these women who had been begging the school to let them come to a clinical lecture. They had a women's medical school in Philadelphia, but the women weren't allowed to view these lectures that all the male students at the men's colleges could attend, and they wanted access to that type of training. They felt like they needed it. So these male students had this riot, this giant temper tantrum, when women showed up. There were approximately 300 male students waiting for about 30 women when they arrived, and they're screaming at them and throwing things and spitting tobacco juice on them, yelling really nasty stuff at them. And then I read that there was pretty much an identical riot when female medical students went to an exam in Edinburgh, Scotland.

That got me thinking that there's something here. I really wanted to dig and find out what women first went through to become doctors. That's what originally piqued my interest. There are so many crazy stories, so many incredible anecdotes about the terrible, terrible behavior of men and the sexism these first female physicians faced. No one would have blamed them at any time for stopping, but they didn't stop. They kept going. It's an inspiring story.

When I read about these women for this book and why they got into medicine, I learned that so many of them did it because they’d experienced a difficult childbirth or even the loss of a child. I felt really connected to them for those reasons. I felt a kinship with them, and that fueled my interest in wanting to learn more about them and their experiences.

Olivia Campbell

As you engage with readers, what are you hearing most interests them about the three women at the center of your book?

I think that these women are very tenacious. You read through all of these things that they've gone through — they're getting turned down dozens of times, everyone's telling them no, their families are disowning them in some cases, one’s mother goes into this horrible depressive episode just at the thought of her daughter becoming a doctor. This was not an OK thing they were doing for anyone at the time, and not even women were supporting other women in these endeavors. But these women kept going, and they kept pushing and saying, “This is what I'm gonna do.” And not only did they get their degrees, they also made sure that other women that came behind them could do the same by opening these women's medical schools for them.

What stood out to you as you explored these women’s stories?

These three women were so different. The first female M.D. practicing in America, Elizabeth Blackwell; the first female licensed physician practicing in England, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson; and the first licensed female M.D. practicing in Scotland, Sophia Jex-Blake. You have these three firsts, and they have totally different ideas about how to achieve being accepted at medical schools and in society as physicians. Those are the two goals right? But they have totally different ideas about how to go about this.

Blackwell doesn't want to step on men’s toes along the way. The other Elizabeth is like that, too. They want to do it slowly and gently, because they believe they need men to accept them. But Sophia kind of barrels in and is like, “I don't care what men think. We're going to do this how we're going to do it.” She's my favorite. She's fantastic. So they really did not get along. Elizabeth Blackwell is poor, she’s pious, and she's very much about being the first — she likes being a celebrity. And then we have Elizabeth Garrett who's very much a traditional “lady,” very feminine. She's got a husband and three kids. She's performing surgeries while she's pregnant. She wants female physicians to be beautiful and ladylike. She wants to show that they're not “manly women” as society kind of assumed they would be. And Sophia is a lesbian who doesn't care what men think of her at all. She speaks her mind much more openly than the others.

But they had to get together, and they had to work together. For instance, they decide that if they don't work together to build this women's medical school in London, it's going to look really bad. If one of them is left out, it's going to be like saying they’re not condoning it. So they put their differences aside to make a place in the U.K. where women can study and attend the classes they need without interference. So it was that story, that drama, those personal interactions that really drew me in the more I dug, and there was more overlap I found with their stories than I realized when I started. It was fascinating to me to see them writing letters to each other, disagreeing with each other and supporting each other. There was this kind of sisterhood that they had to build for there to be progress.

Olivia Campbell holds her book at her local bookstore, accompanied by one of her sons
Olivia Campbell holds her book at her local bookstore, accompanied by one of her sons.

What else surprised you in your research?

There were so many enraging stories that I came across. The lack of family support was one of the biggest things. One of Elizabeth Blackwell's colleagues came over to the U.S. from Germany and got her M.D. at a small college here. And her father’s response was, “If you were my son, I would be so excited and proud. But you're my daughter, so all I can do is grieve and weep.” That perfectly sums up the response many of them received from their families. So many men treated this like it was the end of the world. At the riot in Edinburgh, men were throwing mud, throwing rotten produce and rotten eggs. Just the amount of crap they had to go through was really shocking to me.

All these medical organizations weren’t any help either. For instance, these women in the U.K. were brainstorming how they could get certified to practice medicine because no one would certify them. And without a license, they couldn’t practice. So they're like, “Oh, we’ll go to the obstetrics society. It’s women’s medicine, and surely they will certify us and let us practice.” Instead, the entire board quits rather than giving them the exam and approving them. So no one was certified by the obstetrics society for years because they’d all quit rather than certify women. In the end, it boiled down to groups of men in rooms making decisions about what women could and couldn't do. And then these women ended up just thinking, “Fine, exclude us all you want, but we’re going to do this anyway.”

Am I right that you have a new book project in the works?

Yes, my publisher has already bought my second book, which is just incredible. I can't believe this is my life now — I just get to read and write books. It's a dream come true. My next book is about four women physicists who had to flee [Adolf] Hitler’s Germany. It’s a really fascinating story. These women knew each other in Germany, and then they met up in the U.S. after they immigrated here. I’ve got a photo of two of them sitting with [Albert] Einstein. They did some really cool things as scientists and lived very interesting lives. So why don’t we know about them? I’m excited to learn more and tell their story.