Thursday, May 21, 2020

A woman doctor, unheard of, by Diane Scott Lewis

Even as a small child I thought all doctors were men. When I had my first female doctor I was surprised, looked at my mother in dismay, and wondered if this was a mistake.

In researching my novel, Rose's Precarious Quest, set in 1796, I discovered how difficult it was for a woman to become a licensed and respected physician. Women weren't even allowed to attend college.

However, there were instances of females performing as doctors throughout history. In medieval Germany, an abbess, Hildegard of Bingen, wrote extensively on medical treatments, c. 1151-58. Women of this era worked as midwives, surgeons, and barber-surgeons, especially in rural areas.
When universities developed medical training in the 13th century, women no longer had access to advanced medical education.
Hildegard of Bingen

In the 17th c. physicians were the college educated, top-tiered men. They examined, diagnosed, but never got their hands dirty. Women often worked as barber-surgeons, taking over from their fathers or other male relatives where they'd studied as apprentices. Limits were put on their practice, where men had full rein. Female surgeons worked unlicensed for the most part.
printers' medical symbol

One of the first females to earn an MD was Dorothea Erxleben of Germany in 1754. She was taught and encouraged by her father. The majority of women MDs wouldn't be licensed until the 19th c.

There were exceptions. Lucretia Lester of Long Island practiced midwifery for years, but she was respected as a nurse and doctoress to the women she treated in the latter half of the 18th c..
A Mrs. Grant attended lectures by professors of Anatomy and Practice of Physick in Edinburgh, also in the 18th c.. She had a certificate and practiced as a doctoress in Scotland.

In my novel, Rose studies illegally as a physician in 1796. Assisting the local doctor, she uncovers a dreadful secret that threatens his livelihood. Catern returns to the village to face the man who raped her and worse. When Rose’s sister is betrothed to this brutal earl, Catern struggles to warn Rose of the truth. And who is the mysterious Charlie who wanders the woods?

Purchase Rose's Precarious Quest (scroll down) and my other novels at BWL
For more info on me and my books, check out my website: Dianescottlewis

Medical History, 1998, 42: 194-216
Women in Medicine, Wikipedia

Diane Scott Lewis lives in Western Pennsylvania with her husband and one naughty puppy.


  1. How interesting and I'm so glad things have changed. Book sounds great

  2. Very interesting blog. Enjoyed it. Such struggles we women have had, and still have today, to some extent. I'd chafe at the lack of freedoms back then. Glad (in some respects) I live today.

  3. As always you give some fascinating examples of what life was like way back when.

  4. Long ago had a woman obstetrician--she was in an age group of physicians in which probably 3% were women. The "good old days." Nice subject!

  5. Thank you for pointing out the exceptions. Your book sounds wonderful...I'm off to purchase!


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