The Book of the Week is “The Making of A Woman Surgeon” by Elizabeth Morgan, M.D., published in 1980. Her story told how times have changed.
“Female applicants [to Harvard Medical School in 1966] were regarded as either abnormal or silly.” So the author ended up attending Yale Medical School, where there were only seven females in a class of 97 students.
A sterile floor-length gown was required to be worn over one’s street clothes when one entered the surgical intensive care unit. It was a joke because it didn’t prevent infection. Another joke was that the water used by medical personnel in scrubbing up, wasn’t sterile. Besides, their arms’ hair follicles contained bacteria that rose to the surface of the scrub.
In 1972, after surviving all the sexism in addition to the abusive, hierarchical training system to that point, Morgan worked in a veterans hospital, serving the Vietnam war-wounded. She wrote about the tenor of the times, “These were federally subsidized cigarettes sold at cut-rate prices, tax-free, in unlimited quantities to all V.A. patients.”
In May 1973, the author began writing a medical column for Cosmopolitan magazine. The monthly snippet was only 150 to 200 words, but she spent eight to ten hours writing every single one after fact-gathering from a minimum of five sources, and fact-checking, in the library. Then an editor would clarify her facts, if necessary.
Unfortunately, human nature doesn’t change. In the mid-1970’s, Morgan worked alongside a surgeon who made about a million dollars a year performing unnecessary surgeries. His strong suit was that he could boast that no patient ever sued him. Since his patients were in relatively good health prior to surgery, they recovered uneventfully. Clearly, patients who need surgery, are much more likely to have complications afterward, and are much more likely to have worse outcomes. Problems can crop up that are not the surgeon’s fault.
The author specialized in plastic surgery, which includes reconstructive and cosmetic. She preferred to do the former, to help women feel better about themselves, many of whom had had breast-cancer surgery. When she struck out on her own in private practice, there were lots of patients to choose from.
For, there were still plenty of overzealous male breast-cancer surgeons who truly believed that performing aggressive mastectomies was going to cure their patients. Many of those women were traumatized by the assault on their femininity. And they eventually died, anyway.
Read the book to learn of the various personalities of doctors and patients Morgan encountered during her medical training, and the nature of the training in her specialty in her generation.