“The problem with most biographies is that the subjects are made out to be god-like. I really wanted to make these three-dimensional characters.” Journalist and author Olivia Campbell joins Zibby to discuss her new book, Women in White Coats: How the First Women Doctors Changed the World of Medicine. Olivia shares the traumatic experiences that inspired her to research the women who changed the world of medicine, and how those same experiences led the earliest female doctors to pursue their careers.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Olivia. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Women in White Coats.

Olivia Campbell: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. Would you mind telling listeners what your book is about? Also, what inspired you to write it?

Olivia: My book is about three women in the Victorian era who, against all odds, decide to become doctors, fight as hard as they can to become the first MDs in the US, practicing, and in the UK and into Scotland. It’s three women across different continents. They’re unlikely friends. They don’t get along very well. Because of what they’ve done and how they achieved it, because they’re first, they have to band together, work together. They have to figure out how to work together to establish a women’s medical school in London, the first women’s medical school in England, the only place a woman can get a medical degree in England. They didn’t want anyone else, any other women to go through what they went through to get their medical degree, the harassment they suffered, the struggles they went through. It would’ve been really easy for them to just stop after they got their degrees. No one would’ve blamed them at all. It was so much work and so hard for them to get to that point, years and years and years. Even one of them, she did all the work for a degree; they didn’t actually award her the degree. She had to keep going. They didn’t stop there after their degrees. They didn’t rest and just practice medicine. They said, you know what, I’m going to make sure that no one else has to go through what I went through. They found these schools. One of them founds a school in New York. Then all three of them together found a school in London. What inspired me to start writing about this, women in this era, is I read about a riot in Philadelphia that happened in 1869. It was where women appeared in a medical school class, in a clinical lecture, is what it was, at a hospital. They had been going along at their women’s medical school in Philadelphia.

They said, you know what, we need clinical education. We’ve got to apply to get into this hospital. We need to have this part of our education too, not just the men. The men had been going to these lectures for years and years. Finally, the people at the hospital say, okay, you can come. They appear. The men knew that they were coming. They had been planning a huge riot. They’d been passing papers around saying, watch out for the she-doctors. They’re coming. They’re going to take our jobs. They have no business being here. They get three hundred people, three hundred men, to appear at this lecture, way more than normal. They start throwing crap at them. They’re throwing tobacco spit. They’re yelling at them and calling them nasty names and just horrible things. At the end of it, they’re throwing rocks at them. It was mayhem. It was a full-blown riot just because these women wanted to get a medical education. I was really intrigued by that. Then I found out that a year later, almost exactly a year later, in Edinburgh, Scotland, there was another riot. Almost the exact same thing happened. Women were going into this mixed-gender exam. They had been taking classes separately. A few classes, they’d had alongside men, but mostly, they were taking separate classes for the women at the University of Edinburgh. The exam was for everyone. They had to mix everyone together for the exam. Same deal, they had planned ahead to bring a mob. The women arrived to the exam, and there’s a mob there waiting for them. They’re drunk and throwing rotten vegetables. They’re throwing mud at them. They’re covering their dresses with mud. I was like, okay, this is a pattern. There’s two exactly the same. There’s something going on here. I needed to know more. I needed to know everything that these women were going through during this time just to try to get a medical degree.

Zibby: Wow, what a story. First of all, why do you think this appealed to you so much personally? I could read those studies and be like, oh, interesting, and then flip the page of the newspaper and never think about it again. Not to be so glib, but you dedicated, I’m assuming, years of your life to research and then writing and bringing this story to light for the rest of us. Why, do you think?

Olivia: When I started digging into these stories, what I found is many of the women in Philadelphia — first of all, I live outside of Philadelphia, so I was pulled in by that. Actually, Philadelphia didn’t end up being a large part of the book. That kind of got cut out because we focused in on the people in London, but that’s fine. I was reading about the reasons why these women in Philadelphia wanted to come to the women’s medical school there. I found all these stories of women who had difficult births, had lost a child in childbirth, had lost a relative in childbirth, just these really incredible stories. I felt a great connection with many of these women because the reason I started writing about medicine in the first place was a difficult childbirth, getting pregnant unexpectedly, having terrible postpartum depression. I felt connected to the reasons why they were drawn to medicine. I wasn’t drawn to medicine, but I was drawn to writing about health and writing about women’s medicine by those experiences. That really drove me to push further into these stories.

Zibby: What happened with your postpartum depression? What was that like? Can you talk about it? You don’t have to.

Olivia: No, I can talk about it. It’s okay. I got my pregnant in my last year of college. I scrambled to finish all my classes. I gave birth two days before graduation. I managed to finish everything. I did a whole load of classes over the summer before my last semester.

Zibby: Where were you in college? Not that . Were you in college in Philadelphia?

Olivia: No, I went to VCU in Richmond. I still wasn’t near family. My family is in Virginia and other parts of the union. I did end up marrying the father. We’re still together fifteen years later, so that’s good. Getting pregnant unexpectedly really hit me hard. I felt a lot of resentment around that. I feel like we don’t talk about that enough. We talk about pregnancy in terms of people planning to get pregnant, people wanting to get pregnant. There’s a level of control there that there isn’t always in actuality. I felt like I wanted to keep the pregnancy, that I was old enough, that I wanted to go through with it, but I still struggled with the idea of being pregnant and it not being planned.

Zibby: You were, what, twenty?

Olivia: I was twenty-five because I took some time off before I went to college. I traveled and stuff. I switched majors like three times. I was older, so I was like, okay, I’m old enough, I can do this. Then I had the baby. I lived far away from any family. None of my friends were having babies. I’m very isolated, very alone. My husband works a weird job where he’s gone most evenings. He’s younger than me. He was three years younger, so he was also out of his depth there. I was just a mess. I was angry. I didn’t know that postpartum depression could be anger. I just thought that’s who I was as a mom now. I thought, I guess this is who I am. I’m a mom now, and this is how I am. I would throw things. I would slam things. The resentment just took root inside me and became the anger. I really tried hard not to take it out on my child ever. Those ideas of wanting to run your car off the road and those things started to come to me. I just never wanted to leave the house. I was stuck on the couch. I had a very, very clingy baby. He just cried all the time. He wanted to nurse all the time. It was one of those colicky situations where it was too much. I didn’t really have any support. When I finally told my obstetrician about it, she kind of patted me on the head, basically, and was like, “Oh, you just need a date night with your husband. You need some time out.” So that didn’t help.

Zibby: You’re like, I’m about to murder my husband in cold blood. This is my last attempt to extricate myself from this.

Olivia: Exactly. That’s not the problem. That’s not it. Thinking about it now, I understand why my husband didn’t want to be around me either. I understand that he wanted to go out with his drinking buddies. He was young. He wanted to blow off steam after work. That’s totally understandable, but it just made everything worse. I finally realized what was going on. I didn’t really know that I had postpartum depression for many months. When I finally realized what it was, it wasn’t just sitting and crying, it wasn’t just being sad, that it could manifest in other ways, I started to try other things, try exercise and try really pushing myself to get out of the house and talking about it, writing about it, researching about it, these kinds of things to get me out of my head. It was a very dark time and really lonely.

Zibby: I’m so sorry. It’s also so hard to diagnose. Not that I’m any sort of expert, but I feel like when you have a baby, sometimes it just does suck. Some days really are just really hard and difficult. It’s hard to have a baby crying nonstop and not knowing what to do about it. It’s stressful. It raises your blood pressure. You don’t know what to do. You feel frantic. No one can help you. How do you know you’re not having normal responses to a very destabilizing stimuli, if you will, as opposed to being in a full-on postpartum depression? I think it’s hard for even the person doing it and the people around you to know.

Olivia: Right. I don’t think anyone could’ve told me. I don’t think my mom could’ve been like, oh, you have depression. When you’re in it, you don’t see it. You can’t recognize it a lot of times. Like I said, I thought because it all happened at the same time, I thought that’s just who I was now. This is it. That’s who I am. I’m just an angry ball of rage. They talk about the baby blues. Am I just having a bad day? Is this just what being a parent is like? You don’t know when it’s your first kid and you feel young and isolated at the same time. You don’t know who to ask. All your friends are out having fun. No one else has kids. I’ve had three kids. I took a very long time after the first kid to have another kid because I didn’t want to go through that again. Having experienced postpartum with two other kids now, I can definitely look back and see how different that was and how that definitely was not normal.

Zibby: I’m surprised to hear you had more kids after that. No, I’m kidding. Although, those feelings, not to minimize, but there’s nothing wrong with those feelings. That’s totally understandable that you would feel like that, particularly being so young, chemical stuff aside.

Olivia: I think the biggest reason I put it off was that I almost died during the childbirth. That didn’t help the situation either.

Zibby: What? The first one?

Olivia: Yeah. I waited four years because I was terrified to give birth again.

Zibby: Wait, so what do you mean you almost died? Sorry, now we’re not even talking about the book, but this is so interesting to me. Not to say your pain is my morning cup of tea.

Olivia: No, this is why I write about women’s health and women in medicine. This is why I dig up and examine all these elements. I actually wrote an essay about this. I went back to the hospital many years later and requested my file so I could actually figure out what happened during the childbirth because no one was telling me anything while it was happening. I didn’t know what was going on. All I knew was that I was passing out, things were going black, and my mom was terrified. My mom was a nurse, so you know when she’s terrified, it’s bad. The childbirth wasn’t going fast enough for them, so they gave me the Pitocin, speeding up the contractions, making the contractions worse. Then my contractions hurt so much that I couldn’t walk around as much as I had been. I’m in the bed, stuck in the bed. Then it’s even slower labor. At some point, I get the epidural. The Pitocin and the epidural didn’t have a good mix with me. I’m one of those people where if you give me an epidural, my blood pressure drops. There’s some percentage of the population where they can’t really take an epidural without an extreme blood pressure drop. I start getting really dizzy. My blood pressure’s tanking. The baby’s blood pressure’s tanking. At the same time, the Pitocin is causing a permanent contraction, so my belly is rock hard and not releasing. All of a sudden, I went from having a doctor and a nurse near me to having a room full of — all the people start running in. Things are beeping. The constant contraction means the baby can’t — the heart rate isn’t going, isn’t there. My blood pressure drops, which means my heart rate isn’t there. They tip me backwards, so try to get blood to go to my head. That’s the last thing I remember. I remember being tipped backward. I look up, and there’s a circle of people around me. They’re pushing my mom out of the way. My mom is flipping out.

Zibby: A circle something like this, perhaps, just saying, the cover of your book? Anyway, keep going.

Olivia: Just like that. I pass out a lot. I’m known to pass out, but it felt very different than that. It felt like when you’re getting put under for anesthesia. That’s what it felt like. It felt like I was going somewhere else. I’m starting to lose consciousness. I’m feeling like I’m falling backwards into the nothingness. Eventually, they stabilize everything and pull us out of it. My baby and I almost died. That definitely didn’t help the depression situation either.

Zibby: Did you have a c-section?

Olivia: No, I actually had a vaginal childbirth. The doctor, he was very concerned that I would need a c-section. There was a really old nurse who was amazing. She saved me. She was like, “No, this is perfectly normal for a first-time baby. We don’t need to start throwing the word c-section around. We’re not going to do that.” She saved me from the c-section. Not that it’s bad to have a c-section, but I was even more terrified of that. It was thirty hours of labor or something. It was a total nightmare.

Zibby: Wow. You probably also had PTSD, not just postpartum depression.

Olivia: Right. Definitely, we weren’t talking about that fifteen years ago. That wasn’t a thing. I didn’t even think to call it a traumatic experience until I started excavating these files of what exactly happened. One of the drugs they gave me, they’re not even allowed to use it on a pregnant woman anymore. It’s forbidden because of all the side effects it caused. They had to give me epinephrine to restart my heart. That was the key for the second birth. That’s why I was terrified about needing an epidural with the second birth. It’s going to tank my heart rate, and I’m going to die. What I had to tell the doctor was, “If I need to get an epidural during the second birth, you have to be ready with an epi shot right then.” They did. I asked for the epidural with the second kid. They saw my heart rate start to fluctuate. They’re like, “Okay, we’re going to go.” I didn’t even notice that they gave me — that’s how much I needed that shot. Usually, you would definitely notice that shot of epinephrine. It didn’t make any difference. I just felt totally normal. That meant the second birth was fine. It was a very empowering experience. I had a great doctor and a different doctor who really talked me through. It was great.

Zibby: Whoa. What happened, then, between all of that and your writing this book? In two minutes or less.

Olivia: Let’s see. Actually, for my book, I had an agent come to me. I wrote this essay about climate change and the fairy tale forest. I read an article about climate change and how it was going to change the Black Forest in Germany. I connected that to the Brothers Grimm fairy tales and wrote this long essay for a literary hub about what culture means in the context of a changing climate. If Black Forest was different, how would those stories be different? Tried to connect those two threads. I had multiple agents come to me after that and go, “Hey, you should write a book.” I was like, I hadn’t even thought about that. It wasn’t my idea.

Zibby: But you had decided to become a writer or at least a freelance writer at that point, journalist?

Olivia: Yes. In college, I was a ballet dancer for many, many years.

Zibby: All these twists and turns on this story. Keep going.

Olivia: I spent most of my life as a ballet dancer. I went to London. I trained in London. I came to the US and continued my degree. Then I broke my foot during a move. I decided that I needed a different career that wasn’t so dependent on my body. Of course, journalism is a great idea. It’s totally stable. I decided to go into writing about arts journalism. I wrote about the plays and the dance performances and movies and stuff. At the college paper, I was the cultural editor. That was great fun. It was then when I got pregnant that I started writing about health, women’s health, medicine, that kind of thing. That’s what brought me to being a writer. Because I had a baby as soon as I had a degree, I just started freelancing right away, and so I’ve kind of always been a freelance writer. It’s been ten years of freelance writing before I got interest from an agent, before I dared to think about writing a book, fifteen years, three kids later. The first thing I did with my book money was daycare for my youngest. My agent just said, “Hey, what do you want to write about?” I started poking around for ideas. She said, “That sounds good. Now, can you not get bored of that idea for the next two or three years?” I said, “Yeah, sure, I can do this.”

Zibby: Okay, now it all makes sense. I get it. Then you sold this book idea. You started researching. Then what was your whole process like in writing this book? How did you manage it with all the kids and all the rest of it?

Olivia: First thing I did with the book money, sealed up that daycare. I got three full days of daycare a week for my — he was two at the time. He just turned five. It was three years for research and writing of the book. Up until then, freelancing with kids running around was always a fight. It’s always trying to find time. It’s always taking up the family time to do your writing in the evenings, on the weekends. Now finally, I got the book deal, I didn’t need to be freelancing at the same time. I had the time and the money to dedicate to just this book. It could’ve taken me longer, but it didn’t. I just bought all the books I could find written by these women, written by relatives of these women. I kind of approached it like a journalist writing a profile, is what I think of it as. You’re going to interview the person. You’re going to interview their enemies. You’re going to interview their relatives. So anything I could find about these people, as close to them as I could, and then anything written further out as a biographer, those kind of things. Then once I had everything I could from the digital archives online, from all the books written, anything that I could get my hands on, used books, old books, I went into the actual archives.

Going into the archives in London and Edinburgh and in New York was the last thing I did, almost, because I wanted to know exactly what questions I hadn’t been able to answer yet. There’s lots of answers in the books, so the things that they’d written, the essays, the medical publications that these people had made. Then I had found references to a sentence or two in a letter in a book, in a biography. I was like, okay, I need to know the full story in that. I would mark down what letter that was. I needed to go and look at that actual letter. In London, I found a ton of things about the college itself and when they offered what courses, about the hospital that they ran there, about what kind of ailments people had that came into the hospital, so those records of annual people coming. Those were fascinating to me, those details, to be able to include. Things that people would donate to the hospital, that was what I found hilarious, people donating large amounts of jams or something or books for patients to read. I thought that was really cool. I think my favorite part was going into the archives and actually seeing these letters handwritten by these women, touching something that they had touched. It was really electrifying. It really connected me with them and their stories. I had a little picture of the three of them posted on my wall the whole time I wrote the book. I just wanted to tell their stories, do them justice. My main thing about most biographies and just people in history in general that are talked about, they kind of want to make them this god-like — they’re perfect. They never did anything wrong. I really wanted to make these three-dimensional characters. People aren’t perfect. No one is perfect.

I point out a lot of the men in the book, a lot of these historical men that we know their names, they were big anti-women doctors. I’m debunking their status. I also didn’t want to make the women seem like they were perfect either. The further I went along, the harder that was, though. The more I got to know these women, the more I was like, oh, I don’t want to say that bad thing about them. I understand those impulses, where that comes from of wanting to really make them sound good, because I cared about them. That doesn’t do them justice. It doesn’t do the reader justice either to pretend that they were something that they weren’t. I really love to paint those full pictures, especially of Sophia. She was so complicated. She’s just such a character, really. She’s angry, but she’s really loving. She is eloquent and witty, but she’s also just a mess sometimes. She’s fat. She’s brash. She says whatever she wants. She’s a lesbian. I just love her to bits because she did not take anything from anyone. Those men were not going to tell her what to do or what to think. She wasn’t going to take it. Whereas some of the other women, they were like, I don’t know, we should not step on their shoes. We don’t want to make them angry. We need their support to do this. She was like, whatever, we’re going to do this. We’re going to plow through and do this. That’s what I love about Sophia.

Zibby: You started out by saying these women could’ve just as easily had left good enough alone. What’s that expression? Leaving well enough alone. They didn’t have to start these medical schools. They didn’t have to be pioneers. They didn’t have to do this. I would say likewise with you. You didn’t have to pull up their stories and repackage them and turn them into three-dimensional characters who now we all can get to know and thank and be appreciative of. It’s pretty awesome. I’m so sorry for everything you went through with your own body and health and all of it, but way to take that pain and make it into something amazing. I have so much respect for you. I think that’s awesome. The book is fantastic too. It reads like a novel, really. The details that you put in and the thoughts and feelings and how it all happens, it’s riveting to read. Knowing the backstory now just infuses the whole thing with so much more meaning for me as a reader. Amazing. Thank you.

Olivia: Thank you.

Zibby: Are you going to work on another book? What do you think? Are you one and done? What’s up next?

Olivia: No, I would love to do it all again. I’m already working on my next proposal. I’m planning. Hopefully, the next one will come soon. I loved everything about writing this. To get paid to do what I love, to dig into people and their lives and to tell that story is incredible. It’s great.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Olivia: Agents do read what’s out there, so keep having interesting ideas. That’s what all the agents told me when they approached me. They approached me because of my very original essay idea. That was something that struck them as an unexpected way of thinking about things. Keep publishing if you can. Don’t get discouraged by nos. There’s so many things to learns as a first-time author. One of those is you can still get rejected many times. Being an author doesn’t mean that everyone’s going to suddenly publish you. It’s not to do with your skill or your talent. It’s to do with whether your idea’s a fit. Sometimes saying no to your idea is definitely the right thing. I’m very happy when I look back on the times that people have said no to me. Yeah, I know that wasn’t a good story. Knowing the difference between when you should keep going and when that actually is not a good story. Just keep pushing. Keep publishing. The big takeaway I hope people have from my book is that sexism was never okay. As long as there have been people being sexist, there have been people saying, no, this is not how it’s going to be. This is not how it should be. We love to talk about history like, that’s just how it was. People were racist. People were sexist. You know what? As long as people have been like that, there have been people that are saying, no, this is not okay. It’s never been okay.

Zibby: Love it. Wow, Olivia, thank you so much. Thanks for spending the time with me this morning and letting me pry into your medical records and your personal life. Thanks for that. I hope you have a great day. Thank you again for talking about Women in White Coats.

Olivia: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure.

Zibby: My pleasure. Have a great day. Buh-bye.

Olivia: You too. Bye.


WOMEN IN WHITE COATS by Olivia Campbell

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