By Adeline McElfresh, ©1966
Jane Langford was the only woman in the new crop of interns at City Hospital. She soon found that the great Dr. Gillian, Chief of Surgery, hated women doctors and was using all his power to keep her out of the medical profession. The young male interns watched. Loyal Dr. Clem Bartlett gave her encouragement. Dr. Peter Farley pretended to cheer her on, but hoped she would fail so he could have her to himself. Conniving, cynical Dr. Hal Normal was frankly her enemy … But what of Dr. Tom Waycross—handsome, moody, fanatically dedicated—who stirred such dangerous new emotions in her untried heart?
“The average woman had neither the physical nor the emotional stamina for the often long, long sessions at the operating table; she wasn’t psychologically constructed to dissect, to slice away at human tissue, to saw through bone, or nibble it away with a rongeur.”
“No woman has any business becoming a doctor. More specifically, I feel that no woman has any business becoming a surgeon. Women have neither the physical nor the emotional stamina that Medicine and Surgery, especially surgery, too often demand, even in training, and because they do not possess that physical and emotional strength and stability, they too often expect the way to be made easier for them because of their sex.”
“Hal isn’t such a bad sort, when you forget he’s a louse.”
“I’m sick! Quick, someone, call me a beautiful doctor!”
“The prescription in a case like yours is one glass of water dashed in the face.”
“Don’t kiss me again, not like that, not now—not when I’ve got to go back and do a skull series.”
Dr. Jane Langford is just starting her (guess) intern year at City Hospital. She’s wanted to be a surgeon since she was a wee lass, and much is made throughout the book of the hard road she’s had in getting to this point: Her parents died when she was in high school and she’s had to work a number of odd jobs to finance her education. Which means that she’s had exactly zero time to cultivate her personal—or love—life. And which explains her rather schoolgirl crush on Dr. Tom Wayford; she pines to hear his name called over the intercom or catch a glimpse of him up on the pediatrics floor. And when they do finally get together, her joy is boundless: “She was locked in Tom’s embrace, and that was all that mattered—all that would ever truly matter, she told herself.” It’s a little unsettling to see a woman who has dedicated so much to her career thrust it so quickly to the back seat once she kisses a boy.
But her relationship with Tom is fairly peripheral to the story, and though we are reminded from time to time of her excited infatuation, the bulk of the story is about her travails as she passes through the various specialties in the hospital. Though it must be confessed that her travails are more social—a long-time doctor friend, Peter Farley, is always calling her “honey” and kissing her in public, though she feels nothing more than friendship for him (apparently, just telling him to stop! never crosses her mind), and the gossip mill is whirling with the idea that the chief of surgery, Dr. James Gillian, hates women doctors. (One nice touch is that as the book progresses, the story of why he feels this way gradually becomes increasingly embellished through the grapevine, and we’re never quite sure how much of this growing legend is actually true.) Her medical exploits are always exemplary and without fault: She saves a patient in surgery by administering a precordial thump (the two senior surgeons with her at the table apparently forgetting this potentially life-saving gesture), diagnoses a ruptured brain aneurysm in time to save a rich young man, and takes call for days on end without dropping. I do wish she weren’t such a superwoman; you don’t have to be perfect to be a great doctor, even if you are just a woman.
Her big struggle is to convince Dr. Gillian, when she finally ends up on his service, that women can be not just doctors but surgeons, and very good ones, and that he should accept her as a surgical resident next year. She is slowly succeeding at this endeavor, natch, but in the meantime, long hours at the hospital are cooling her ardor for Tom. Then, lo and behold, she meets wealthy Lance Hart, who is almost the only man in the book neither a doctor nor a patient. He’s a lawyer, and he sweeps her off her feet with flowers and candy, and instantly Jane is “acting like a sixteen-year-old with her first corsage”—meaning exactly as she did toward Tom when he first caught her eye. She’s swooning over Lance in a familiar and sickening way: “Oh, Lance, Lance! her heart sang, over and over again. Kiss me again, Lance darling! Don’t ever let me go!” Jane may be a great doctor, but she is a little kid in affairs of the heart.
The rub is that Lance is not wild about her being a surgeon, and is pressing her to dump surgery and join his mother’s convalescent hospital, where wealthy women go to take a little break. Jane has serious doubts: Could she give up her dream “of helping people who needed her desperately because, too often, there was no other doctor to attend them, or a doctor who cared? Could she be happy working with patients who didn’t need her, who didn’t really need any doctor?” In the last chapter, Dr. Gillian admits he was wrong about women doctors and offers Jane a spot in surgery under him next year—as we knew all along he would. Tom has dropped out of sight long ago, and now all she needs to do is wangle a ring from Lance to make her life complete—which he is suggesting she will only get if she takes the job at the convalescent home.
To author Adeline McElfresh’s credit, she never pretends that Jane is anything but immature in her feelings toward her men. With Tom, “falling in love with him, or thinking herself in love, had been natural.” And nothing changes when she and Tom drift apart and she tumbles for Lance. “It was easy to forget that she had thought herself just as deeply in love with Tom Waycross as she was, now, with Lance. It has been different between her and Tom. This was real,” McElfresh writes, and we can feel the sarcasm in the words. My beef, though, is that both relationships and Jane’s feelings are handed to us on a platter: We witness few conversations, shared activities, or anything that would show why Jane feels as she does. But perhaps that’s part of the writer’s plan, keeping us minimally invested in these relationships to help us feel that neither man is truly right for Jane.
The ending is the most shocking I’ve encountered in a VNRN, but this is the first in a series of six books chronicling the life and loves of Dr. Jane Langford, so we can only assume that Jane gets herself straightened out in Doctor Jane, the next installment. The writing is steady, if not particularly stylized or amusing or campy, and the story is good enough. Again, it would have made for a more thoughtful book if Jane hadn’t been Superman in a dress, and nothing in the story stands out to make this a great book. But it’s an easy, pleasant read, good enough to make me interested in finding out what happens next.