Nobody’d better ever tell you that you can’t.

It would be like instructing you to at least try. It’s like waving a 10-foot-tall neon flag that says “DO IT,” right in your face. When you’re told you can’t, you just double down and make it happen and in the new book “Women in White Coats” by Olivia Campbell, that kind of thing opens doors.

Elizabeth Blackwell comforted her friend as best she could, but the fact of the matter was that Mary Donaldson probably had uterine cancer and she was dying.

It was 1845, in Cincinnati, Ohio, but it could have happened anywhere; medical care for women then was lacking because of Victorian attitudes, myths, and medical ignorance; nudity was taboo and most physicians avoided looking at unclothed female bodies. Mary, wishing aloud for a “lady doctor,” urged Elizabeth to study medicine.

Says Campbell, Elizabeth “was initially repulsed by the prospect” because being a doctor was “a gruesome business” and definitely not for a lady’s delicate sensibilities. But the more Elizabeth thought about it, the more the idea appealed to her and so she applied to many medical schools and was turned away almost everywhere.

More than a decade later, 21-year-old Lizzie Garrett was wrestling with a similar issue in England. There were lady doctors by then, but only a handful. Medical school officials were starting to accept the idea of women doctors – they could see the advantages – but naysayers still existed. Undaunted, and encouraged by her friend, Sophia Jex-Blake, Lizzie continued to try to get her MD.

Sophia had always dreamed of opening a boarding school for young women like her, outspoken women who didn’t fit the Victorian norm, but by watching her friend, Lizzie, and by working alongside Lizzie as a nurse, Sophia came to realize how much she genuinely loved medicine. Alas, women in Great Britain were still denied the formal schooling.

In America, Elizabeth Blackwell recognized this issue. To have more women in medicine, she knew, women should have a medical college just for them.

And so she began to plan one...

“Women in White Coats” is a very good, quite astounding story, but for one thing: the collective triple-tale can feel like much of the same. But hold on....

First, readers are individually introduced to each of author Olivia Campbell’s main subjects in solid, tight chapters that offer good background, making it easy to find admiration for them; were any of these women alive today and facing similar barriers, they’d be lauded on cable news as the ground-breakers they were. Indeed, given the accompanying and relevant history, society, and medicine – some parts of which are shocking – readers will clearly see the uphill climb that Blackwell, Garrett, and Jax-Blake faced, fights you might be tempted to disbelieve without Campbell’s deft storytelling.

So yes, there’s repetition here. No doubt about it, but it’s necessary to show perseverance in the face of conviction and strength. For that, if you think you can resist “Women in White Coats” once you start it, well, you can’t.

Terri Schlichenmeyer can be reached at

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