Inside the world of women’s medicine and health

In honor of Women’s History Month, let’s take a look at several books on the topic of women in medicine and women’s health.

With everything that’s happened in the last year, health feels like a very important topic to consider. Women have had to work very hard to make inroads into the field of medicine and also actively advocate for their health.

It is a testament to that hard work that one of the more recent innovations in medicine, the creation of a vaccine to fight COVID-19, was made in part by Black female scientist Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett.

In the early 1800s, women were dying in large numbers from treatable diseases because they avoided medical care. Motivated by personal loss and frustration over inadequate medical care, Elizabeth Blackwell, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Sophia Jex-Blake decided to pursue medical careers in the male-dominated field of medicine.

Their stories are explored in “Women in White Coats: How the First Women Doctors Changed the World of Medicine” (Park Row, 2021) by Olivia Campbell.

After Elizabeth Blackwell paved the way, her sister, Emily, also chose to follow in her footsteps. “The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women — and Women to Medicine” (W.W. Norton Company, 2021), by Janice P. Nimura, looks at the path Elizabeth and Emily took to become some of the first female doctors in America. Together, the Blackwells founded the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children.

During World War I, women were needed in the medical field more than ever before. Wendy Moore’s book, “No Man’s Land: The Trailblazing Women Who Ran Britain’s Most Extraordinary Military Hospital During World War I” (Basic Books, 2020) follows doctors Flora Murray and Louisa Garrett Anderson (daughter of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson) as they set out for Paris, where they opened a hospital in a luxury hotel and treated hundreds of wounded soldiers from France’s battlefields.

If fiction is more your speed, there are several great novels that tell the story of some of the first women doctors. “The Gilded Hour” (Berkley Books, 2015) by Sara Donati is the first book in the Waverly Place series.

This book starts out in 1883 following Anna Savard and her cousin, Sophie, both graduates of the Women’s Medical School, as they begin their journey as doctors in New York City. The second book, “Where the Light Enters” (Berkley Books, 2019), continues their story.

“My Name Is Mary Sutter” (Viking, 2010), by Robin Oliveira, follows a young midwife, Mary Sutter, who dreams of becoming a surgeon. Mary travels to Washington, D.C., to help tend the legions of Civil War-wounded. This book is followed up by the sequel, “Winter Sisters” (Viking, 2018).

Another novel dealing with women in the medical field is “The Pull of the Stars” (Little, Brown and Company, 2020), by Emma Donoghue. This story is told over a few days in the life of nurse Julia Power as she works in a flu ward for expectant mothers in Ireland during the 1918 flu pandemic.

Sometimes truth is stranger and scarier than fiction, and this can be seen in several recent books that look at how health care is still failing women. “Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick” (HarperOne, 2019), by Maya Dusenbery; “Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men” (Harry N. Abrams, 2019), by Caroline Criado Perez; and “Sex Matters: How Male-centric Medicine Endangers Women’s Health and What We Can Do About It” (Hachette Go, 2020), by Alyson J. McGregor, all explore the fact that most medical treatments were created for men and therefore don’t take into account the differences in women’s bodies. Women are also often not taken seriously with their symptoms and are ignored and misdiagnosed.

Women have added so much to the advancement of medicine, but they have also struggled with benefitting from these medical gains through more equal treatment in health care. There is no doubt women will continue to make important contributions to the medical field, and hopefully through advances in science and the emphasis on providing women with the healthcare they deserve, changes can be made to better serve them.

Liz Aleshunas is a collection management librarian with Daniel Boone Regional Library.