Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Dr. Dorothy’s Choice

By Elizabeth Wesley
(pseud. Elizabeth Adeline McElfresh), ©1962
Cover illustration by Lou Marchetti

As a doctor at the Still River hospital and as the bride-to-be of Tom Norman, Dee Bailey had exactly what she wanted in life—to cure the sick and to love and be loved. Then both her career and her love were threatened—one by an ambitious doctor, the other by a beautiful, seductive woman. Both had power, money and cunning behind them. Alone, with only her conscience and her love to guide her, Doctor Dee had to make the decision which would determine not only her own future, but the future of the hospital and the entire Still River community as well.


“Give my best to his greater omentum. Long may it remain unpunctured.”

“One of these times he’s going to cut out his own gizzard when he tries to knife somebody and pat himself on the back at the same time.”

“A doctor needs to unbend, to let his patients glimpse something besides strict asepsis and medicochirurgical knowledge.”

“I’d like that better if you left out the comma. ‘Always glad to oblige Nola.’ There! Doesn’t that sound better?”

“She had missed last week’s appointment for a shampoo and set at the beauty shop because of an emergency in Surgery—a cross that any nurse, surgeon, or anesthesiologist has to bear, because the patient comes first, no matter what.”

“You know my daughter, Tom. She’s young, beautiful, spoiled rotten. She needs to get married, but God help the man.”

Dorothy Bailey is the granddaughter of a woman whom Dr. Paul Courtney, now 75 years old, once loved. Though Louise chose to marry another man and died of the flu when she was fairly young, Dr. Paul played the role of uncle to her two sons—one of them named after Paul—and this was Dorothy’s father. Dorothy became a doctor, obviously, “because you are, Dr. Paul,” and now works as an anesthesiologist at the hospital he founded, Still River General Hospital in Indiana. He’s thinking of retiring, and is moved to tears at the realizations of “an old man’s dream” when he offers Dorothy—I just can’t bring myself to call her Dee, as the book does—his job as chief of staff.

But there are a couple of wrinkles in this plan. The first is that some of the boy doctors won’t like it, especially Dr. Rod Howell, who is a coldly ambitious but brilliant surgeon who wants the job for himself. The second hiccup is that Dorothy doesn’t want it, though her reasons aren’t completely clear. “I’m an anesthesiologist! I want to go on being an anesthesiologist. I want to marry you and bear your children,” she tells her fiancé, newspaperman Tom Norman, though I’m not clear what her family planning has to do with it. Tom, to his credit, tells her that she can be a wife, mother, anesthesiologist, and chief of staff, “and you can do a bang-up job at each, separately or at one and the same time.” She responds, “Who ever heard of a woman chief of staff?” So my fear is that Dorothy doesn’t want the job because she is too circumscribed by gender roles, somewhat surprising since she has already done so in spades by becoming a doctor at a time when only 6 percent of medical students were women (this was in the 1960-1 school year; in 2012 it was 49 percent[1]).

But Dorothy can’t bring herself to tell Dr. Paul that she doesn’t want the job, so the bulk of the book is about Dr. Howell’s struggles to win it, by fair means or foul, for himself. He circulates a rumor that a surgery he performed with Dr. Paul was botched by the elder doctor, and that’s why the patient died. A seedy drunk, Jake Smith, is found to be spouting loudly at a nearby burger joint that Dr. Paul killed the patient—though everyone knows that Dr. Howell has paid the man to do so. Then Jake is seeing hanging around the hospital, on the same night that Dr. Paul is found unconscious in the stairwell. Coincidence? We think not!

There’s a lot of to-doing about what happened to Dr. Paul, and confrontations between Dr. Howell and Jake, who attempts to blackmail the bad doctor; Dr. Howell and Dorothy, who has been made acting chief of staff during Dr. Paul’s loss of consciousness (what do they do when he’s asleep, or on vacation?); and Tom Norman and Jake Smith, who protests he never touched Dr. Paul! Then it’s just for Dr. Paul to wake up and tell everyone he just missed a step and fell, Dr. Howell to plead guilty to his mad ambition and be forgiven, and for Dr. Paul to tell Dorothy that he knew all along that she didn’t want to be chief of staff—“You’re in love,” he tells her, again as if her personal relationships somehow make her less fit for the job. She never actually voices her refusal; it’s just assumed that she is turning down the position. Dr. Paul “watched Dr. Dee walk into Tom Norman’s arms as if she never wanted to leave them, and he knew he had done the right thing. He had given Dr. Dee the right to make her decision.” A nice tie-in to the title, but seriously, did she ever not have the right to make her own decision? And did she ever make any decision at all? She is essentially just wafted along by Dr. Paul’s decisions, first to make her chief of staff and then to unmake her.

Unfortunately, Dorothy is not a very vital character, without much starch or spice, and I can’t fathom her lack of interest in becoming chief of staff since she never gives any actual reasons as to why she doesn’t want the job. She’s also brought down by her insecurities about Tom, who is the object of slinky vixen Nola Fenton’s desires. Though Dorothy and Tom seem deeply committed, when Nola lies to Dorothy that Tom kissed her “so hard I’m sure it still shows,” instantly the fountain of anxiety is turned on, and we are treated to paragraphs of Dorothy’s fears: “It isn’t true, Dee Bailey, and you know it! she told herself. So stop tormenting yourself. Don’t give Nola the satisfaction. Don’t let her enter a wedge of doubt between you and Tom—there never has been one; you’ve both been so sure of your love, your trust. But had they? Had Tom?” You see what I mean.

Apart from the disappointing fact that the title character is a bit of a dishrag, the book is fairly straightforward, without much sparkle, but not overly boring, either. It has a bit of humor to it in places, which help you get through it. But in general there’s not enough here to bother reading about Dr. Dorothy’s choices—or lack thereof.

[1] Association of American Medical Colleges, “Total Enrollment by U.S. Medical School and Sex, 2008-2012”.


  1. Hello and thanks for the thorough archive of Nurse novels. I have been looking for the source novel from a Prince painting as shown here:

    Would you be able to recognize from which book this painting was based? Thanks, as I had begun searching through your archives but thought I might just ask...

  2. this link might work if the other doesnt:

  3. Being a complete dork, yes, I recognized it immediately! It's from "Calling Dr. Jane" by Adeline McElfresh, published by Bantam Books #1776, May 1958. Try searching for it on and you should find many scans of the cover.

  4. Ah. You're really good! Thanks, that's exactly it... very impressed.