The Physician’s Daughter

Written by Martha Conway
Review by Helen Johnson

Massachusetts, 1865, and Vita, daughter of a country doctor, wants to study medicine, but her father forbids it. Instead, he demands that she marry and bear sons, to replace men lost in the recent Civil War. But Vita is determined. She cuts a deal with a man who promises to help her get to college. But can she trust him?

Conway embeds detailed historical research into a story of living, breathing people, with their own personal tics, joys, and griefs. Vita lives up to her name, and whether she is hiding to read an illicit book, witnessing a medical procedure, or making love, readers share her lived experience. I enjoyed this feel of character and place. However, squeamish readers might find some medical scenes an experience too far.

I found the first part of the book somewhat repetitive, as Vita continually argues with her father. Through argument after argument, he offers a variety of reasons why she may not study and cannot have a career outside the home. His words represent not only himself, but also the attitudes of society. Vita struggles with women’s lack of freedom at the time. They were subject to fathers or husbands, and when they married, their property became legally their husband’s. Part of the medical storyline involves birth control, taboo at the time and hence difficult to research.

Conway contrasts Vita’s story with the struggles of damaged war veterans as they try to rebuild civilian lives. Men did not have it easy, either. As characters sought new opportunities, I enjoyed the lively descriptions of fast-growing industrial cities. The magnificently awful Reverend Simpers provides welcome comic relief.

Recommended for those interested in women’s, social, and medical history, with a reading list of sources for those wanting to learn more.