Friday, December 30, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Women Medical Doctors in the United States before the Civil War by Edward C. Atwater

I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

Women Medical Doctors in the United States before the Civil War: A Biographical Dictionary by Edward C. Atwater is a true labor of love. The author compiled a list of 280 women who received MD degrees during the 13-year period from 1849 (the year the first woman received an MD) until the start of the Civil War. Medical school itself was nothing like what we know today. Regularly-trained physicians competed for patients with other doctors trained as homeopaths or as water cure experts. Given the primitive range of treatments available to regular doctors, outcomes were often better for patients treated with homeopathy or water cures. Female physicians generally tended to women and children, and often lectured to the public on health and hygiene. But there were women serving their communities in the same capacity as male physicians in this early time period.

The book lists the women alphabetically and provides as much biographical information as the author could cull from census records, newspaper or periodicals, books (some of the women wrote books or pamphlets), and occasional letters. Some of the women left behind enough of a record to piece together a glimpse of their lives, while others remain a blank, with only the barest demographic information available. In many cases, it isn’t even possible to know for sure if they practiced medicine after earning their degrees. Other women not only practiced but taught in medical schools.

Despite the encyclopedic nature of the book, it is surprisingly readable and oddly fascinating. It’s a difficult book to get through all in one sitting, but it’s a great book to read in bits and pieces.

Anyone with an interest in the history of medicine might like a copy of this book for their shelves.