Bookworm: ‘Women in White Coats’ celebrates the groundbreakers

Love, Lust, and Murder in ‘Last Call’

Terri Schlichenmeyer
Columnist
“Women in White Coats: How the First Women Doctors Changed the World of Medicine” author Olivia Campbell.

“Women in White Coats: How the First Women Doctors Changed the World of Medicine”

  • By Olivia Campbell
  • c. 2021, Park Row Books
  • $27.99, $34.99 Canada; 368 pages

Nobody’d better ever tells 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.

“Women in White Coats: How the First Women Doctors Changed the World of Medicine” by Olivia Campbell.

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.

“Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York”

  • By Elon Green
  • c. 2021, Celadon Books
  • $27, $36.50 Canada; 257 pages

There’s time for one last round. One for the road, as they say. A tip for the barkeep, a final toast before you go, one more clink before you drink, and, as in the new book “Last Call” by Elon Green, be careful on your way out the door.

“Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York” author Elon Green.

The roadside maintenance worker had been around awhile, long enough to know when something was unusual. It was May 1991, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and the last trash bag he hefted seemed too heavy. When he poked the final one of eight bags, he saw freckles and called the State Police. He hadn’t touched anything in the bag, but he was ordered to have an AIDS test: the naked man inside was identified as Peter Stickney Anderson of Philadelphia, a banker and father who was gay.

Slightly more than a year later, on an otherwise-lonely stretch of road in New Jersey, two Transportation Department workers discovered another pile of trash bags that seemed “not quite right.” Inside the bags was the meticulously-dismembered body of Thomas Mulcahy, a detail they knew instantly because the killer left Tom’s ID behind.

In May of 1993, a street worker, Anthony Marrero, was found dismembered in a series of plastic bags identical to the ones Mulcahy had been left in. By this time, officials had homed in on a few facts: the bags came from a certain store in Staten Island. They were tied in a specific way, and the bodies were cut with almost-medical precision. Still, despite the heinousness of the crimes, little-to-no attention was paid to them outside the gay community.

“Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York” by Elon Green.

On July 29, 1993, Michael Sakara, an affable, thoughtful man told panhandlers as he left a Manhattan bar that he was “going upstate” with a companion he’d met that night. Less than 48 hours later, Michael’s head and arms were discovered in a plastic bag. Police from two states put their collective heads together and got nothing but loose ends, and the case went cold.

Years later, they’d muse about how close they’d actually come to a solution...

In his afterword, author Elon Green explains why this story captured his fancy. Who were these four men? Were there others? Most importantly, why didn’t this murder spree get the regional attention it deserved?

Green answers his own questions in this book but there’s more. There are biographical sketches of four good men here, each rounded out so well that you may wish you’d known these guys. None of them fit a mold – Green captures that clearly – and he subtly, kindly reminds readers that they were someone’s son, friend, or father.

And then, just as it seems like there’s no conclusion to this tale, Green brings in the killer, whom he tantalizinging doesn’t immediately name. In those pages lie some one of the edgiest, most shoulder-clenching, most psychologically-taught chapter you’ll read this year.

So, lock the doors. Pour yourself a strong one, and down the hatch for fortification. You’re looking for hair-raising true-crime, and “Last Call” is the one to have around.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.