The Surgeon’s Daughter

Written by Audrey Blake
Review by Gail M. Murray

Set in the 1840s, when women were denied entry to British and American medical schools and doctors routinely succumbed to contagious diseases suffered by their patients, the story follows the brave struggle of Nora Beady, ward to renowned London surgeon Horace Croft. After ten years of training by Dr. Croft, Nora enrolls in the prestigious University of Bologna, Italy. Diphtheria, sepsis, scarlet fever, and tetanus are rampant. Countless women perish in childbirth. Nora faces arrogant, resentful and critical colleagues, except for her mentor, Dr. Croft and her supportive fiancé, Dr. Daniel Gibson. Chapters alternate between Nora’s study in Bologna and Croft’s practice in London. Under the commanding and competent Dr. Magdalena Marenco, Nora assists at a controversial and rarely performed cesarean section; preferable to the gruesome craniotomy, where the baby is killed and removed in pieces with a crochet hook to save the dying mother. Ether is new, and Nora’s talent for dispensing it serves her well. Today cesareans are commonplace saving 18 million lives annually.

This novel is not for the faint of heart, with operations described in graphic detail, not in a gratuitous way but to highlight the historical context. Then instruments were wiped and placed back in the surgeon’s bag, hence the high rate of infection. A glossary of medical terms and diseases would have proved helpful. Dr. Marenco becomes Nora’s ally and encourages and tutors her. After hours on her feet before a panel of her professors, she gains her doctorate of the arts in medicine. Sought by Lady Woodbine, will her husband allow a cesarean to save his wife? If Nora fails, ruin follows.

This is an intense, suspenseful, and insightful read about the challenges both women and doctors faced in the 19th century. The sweet love letters exchanged between Daniel and Nora and a picnic outing with expatriates add lightness and charm. Our heroine rises to the challenge with courage and determination.