When I started reading about medicine in the latter part of the 19th century, three themes struck me:
Second, things were evolving so fast that for a long time there was no infrastructure and doctors and researchers developed their own protocols. Any theory, no matter how specious the underlying science, could be pursued, and with human subjects. Probably the best known instance of this was J. Marion Sims, who was credited, for many years, as the father of gynecological science. Eventually his methods came to light, and they weren’t pretty: he was a southern slave holder when he first started practicing medicine, and he used female slaves to test and refine his theories on surgical treatment of gynecological problems. Systematically, over a period of years when there was no anesthesia, he operated on the same female slaves again and again. As a result he did actually develop a way to fix fistulas — tears in the vaginal walls that sometimes protruded into bladder or colon, and were horrific for the sufferer — surgically. He also invented the speculum. When asked about his use of slaves, he gave the usual answers: his slaves were thankful for his help. This kind of experimentation went on throughout the 19th century, and not only with slave women. For example, there was a theory that hysteria and insanity originated in the female reproductive organs. I can show you multiple medical journal articles claiming that a woman could be cured of her unnatural leanings (which could mean anything) by female castration (excision of the external genitalia) and complete hysterectomy. There are reports of this surgery being done and claims of success. I imagine that a woman who was forcibly hospitaled and subject to this kind of mutilation would either shut down emotionally, or be consumed by anger.
Third — and whatt struck me especially was that all this was happening as women were finally breaking into medicine. Because they were not allowed into traditional medical schools, they set up schools and hospitals and infirmaries and societies of their own. Even then, by law, in some parts of the country, female physicians were restricted to treating women and children, and for the most part this meant the poorest and most vulnerable.
So the thing that interested me was how these three things came together. How a woman could train as a scientist and a physician and in the process, be exposed to these theories and practices without rebeling. Because not all female physicians had a problem with the state of affairs, but many did. A female physician who spent all her time treating the poor and destitute was confronted, first and foremost, with issues of reproduction. Poor women, undernourished, overworked, often died in childbed — even after antiseptic measures were universally accepted as necessary. Men were working overtime to restrict access to birth control, and abortion was outlawed. Anthony Comstock went after any physician who broke these laws, and was sometimes successful at sending them to prison.
These were the things that I had in mind as I began writing The Gilded Hour and thinking about the two female physicians at the center of the story.
The international bestselling author of Into the Wilderness makes her highly anticipated return with a remarkable epic about two female doctors in nineteenth-century New York and the transcendent power of courage and love… The year is 1883, and in New York City, it’s a time of dizzying splendor, crushing poverty, and tremendous change. With the gravity-defying Brooklyn Bridge nearly complete and New York in the grips of anti-vice crusader Anthony Comstock, Anna Savard and her cousin Sophie—both graduates of the Woman’s Medical School—treat the city’s most vulnerable, even if doing so may put everything they’ve strived for in jeopardy. Anna’s work has placed her in the path of four children who have lost everything, just as she herself once had. Faced with their helplessness, Anna must make an unexpected choice between holding on to the pain of her past and letting love into her life. For Sophie, an obstetrician and the orphaned daughter of free people of color, helping a desperate young mother forces her to grapple with the oath she took as a doctor—and thrusts her and Anna into the orbit of Anthony Comstock, a dangerous man who considers himself the enemy of everything indecent and of anyone who dares to defy him. With its vivid depictions of old New York and its enormously appealing characters, The Gilded Hour is a captivating, emotionally gripping novel that proves Sara Donati is an author at the height of her powers. Thanks to the publisher, I have one (1) copy of The Gilded Hour to give away.
Winner will have 48 hours, from the time of notification to confirm their win or another winner will be chosen.
BUT: Sara has been busy. She has a new novel coming out September 1, The Gilded Hour. More about the novel here. Or you can have a look at the weblog. Rosina writes the posts, but Sara hangs around and offers her opinions, on occasion. Both Sara and Rosina are on Facebook, but Rosina is the only one who twitters.