Interview With an Author: Olivia Campbell

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Olivia Campbell and her first book, Women in White Coats
Author Olivia Campbell and her first book, Women in White Coats

Olivia Campbell is a journalist and author specializing in medicine and women; her work has appeared in The Guardian and The Washington Post, New York Magazine, and The Cut, among others. Her first book is Women in White Coats and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for Women in White Coats?

I became intrigued by this topic after reading about two riots that occurred a year apart, one in Philadelphia and one in Edinburgh. Both were cases of men throwing violent fits because women dared to attend medical school alongside them. They threw spitballs, chewing tobacco, trash, mud, and rotten vegetables at the women while screaming insults and jeers. I wanted to know more about what the first women MDs faced on the path to their degrees.

How long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write Women in White Coats?

It took me about three years to research and write. I feel lucky to have completed my research trips to archives in New York, London, and Edinburgh in the fall of 2019 before the pandemic shut the world down. Holding their handwritten letters was truly electrifying.

What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned about Elizabeth Blackwell, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, and/or Sophia Jex-Blake during your research?

I was happily surprised to find out that so many of these early medical women were queer: Sophia, Elizabeth Blackwell’s sister Emily (who was also a doctor), Emily and Elizabeth’s colleague Marie Zakrzewska, and Elizabeth Garrett’s daughter Louisa all lived with women partners. Reading women’s passionate declarations of love for other women in their diaries—them not feeling ashamed of it or feeling like it was incongruous with their Christian faith—that was so refreshing.

Same question, but regarding medicine at that period in time. What was the most surprising or interesting thing you learned about medicine in the 1800s?

I was shocked to learn how little study went into getting a medical degree, at least in America. It was little more than an undergrad degree and took only nine months of study, an internship, exams, and a thesis. And most men graduated without ever having attended a real-life birth!

Sophia Jex-Blake instructed that, upon her death, her personal papers and journals should be destroyed. That may have made researching her and her life more difficult than Dr. Blackwell and Dr. Garrett Anderson. Was Dr. Jex-Blake markedly more difficult to investigate?

There was essentially nothing in the archives from Sophia. I was lucky, though, in that she wrote many essays and a few books about her life and experiences. Her words at public meetings were often captured by newspaper reporters, too. One of my main sources for her was a biography written by her partner. Before disposing of them, her partner incorporated many of Sophia’s diary entries and letters in the biography.

Do you have an idea or theory regarding why Dr. Blackwell and Dr. Garrett Anderson are better known/remembered today than Dr. Jex-Blake? Is it because she requested that her papers be destroyed or something else?

I think it’s so sad that Sophia doesn’t get the credit she’s due. It was her idea to found the London School of Medicine for Women, but the others pushed her out because they thought she was too brusque and now it’s remembered as Dr. Garrett’s school. I think Sophia has always been unfairly maligned because she wasn’t as likable and didn’t fit society’s ideas of how women should be. She was a fat, outspoken lesbian with a temper—most people couldn’t see past that, but if you gave her a chance, you’d see she also had an astonishing wit, extraordinary mind, and huge heart.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby, I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong, and Fugitive Science: Empiricism and Freedom in Early African Culture by Britt Rusert. I’ve almost always got more than one book going: one for research and a novel or narrative nonfiction for fun.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Bill Bryson has been a lifelong favorite of mine for his ability to weave science, humor, and curiosity into beautiful prose. Every time I pick up one of Tana French’s books it makes me want to quit writing because I’ll never be that good. I discovered Jane Austen during my formative high school years (as a homeschooler) and fell instantly in love. Alexander Chee’s writing will take up residence in your brain: move in, settle down, and start landscaping. And of course, Mary Roach is the godmother of science writers everywhere.

As a debut author, what have you learned during the process of getting your book published that you would like to share with other writers about this experience?

At least in the case of nonfiction: be sure to find a subject you are willing to devote at least a few years of your life to. A good agent is worth their weight in gold. Finally, getting a book deal won’t radically change or fix your life.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

As a young child, I loved the series Max & Ruby. As I got older, my favorites included Ramona, The Baby-Sitters Club, The Boxcar Children, and Nancy Drew. I was raised to love libraries.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

No, but I remember being intrigued by the covers of the Sweet Valley High books and not being allowed to get them at the library. I definitely had to hide a lot of my CDs from my parents, though (bad language, sexual content).

What is a book you've faked reading?

I am a very slow reader, so I’m sure I faked reading or finishing a few books during my school tenure. I don’t recall anyone in particular.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments, by Aimee Nezhukumatathil.

Is there a book that changed your life?

The Empathy Exams really shook up my soul and awakened me to new ways of writing, storytelling, and how to approach a topic.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

I Remember You: A Ghost Story by Yrsa Sigurdardottir.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. This is one of the few books that has made me gasp out loud.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

I think Parasite might actually be a perfect film. The story, the acting, the cast, and most of all, the cinematography. Just wow.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

I’d give anything to be able to sit at a restaurant with old friends right now, whiling away the evening picking at appetizers and slowly nursing a cocktail, perhaps after spending the day museum-hopping. This would normally be mundane, but right now it sounds so decadent and far-fetched.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

How long have you wanted to be a writer? Since I wrote a mystery novel with my big sister when I was seven years old. And in 5th grade, I wrote and directed my classmates in a Star Trek fan-fiction screenplay.

What are you working on now?

Right now, I’m developing a few ideas for my next book. I’m poking around in archives and journal articles looking for captivating stories about historical women in science who deserve more credit for their contributions.

Book cover for Women in White Coats: How the First Women Doctors Changed the World of Medicine
Women in White Coats: How the First Women Doctors Changed the World of Medicine
Campbell, Olivia