by Elizabeth Seifert, © 1946
When the new doctor arrived at Lakeside Hospital, the reaction was lively. Nobody had expected Dr. Chris Metcalf to be a girl. The nurses were not pleased, for another young woman meant keener competition for the attention of the handsome Chief of Staff. The Chief of Staff himself was not pleased, for he believed that medicine was for men alone. So Chris had something to fight against, as well as a lot to learn during her year of hospital life. It was anything but a dull year, however, what with this vigorous opposition, with sabotage in an Army Ordnance plant nearby, and with the personable young lawyer in town who appreciated Chris as a woman rather than as a doctor. In her latest novel Elizabeth Seifert shows the development of Chris Metcalf is a person and as a doctor, and adds a vivid new story to her popular group of novels about doctors and the drama of their work.
“Just so I’m the biggest something in your life, sweetheart.”
Poor Dr. Chris Metcalf is a 24-year-old intern, having just graduated from medical school, and is arriving at Lakeside Hospital somewhere in Missouri. Of course, the initial joke is that with the nickname of Chris, everyone thinks from her resume that she is a man. What fun when she arrives wearing a skirt! Well, maybe not fun, as she gets the fisheye from multiple mossbacked and/or jealous nurses and doctors, including her new chief, 40-year-old Dr. Key Edmons. (I know, “Key” is about the worst name ever, but it’s not the first time we have met one, and probably won’t be the last, unfortunately.) But Chris is not intimidated: “I’m not frightened of you, and you don’t shock me,” she tells him. “Another thing you can count on, I won’t bother you by falling in love with you.” That shows him! Except maybe not, as he has an exceptional amount of prejudice to overcome, and she is perennially smacking into that wall. Frankly it gets more than a little tiresome to continually encounter remarks such as, “There is something you’re going to have to learn, Dr. Metcalf, though I’m damned if I think you can learn it. Because you’re a girl!” Or, “You didn’t handle the father, and the reason you didn’t is the same reason we have against your trying to be a doctor. You’re a girl.” Honestly, Chris is never going to experience any gender confusion, she is reminded so frequently of hers, though it seems likely that she has progressed through puberty and actually qualifies as a woman.
She does not have much spare time, being an intern and all, but soon Chris has hooked up with a local playboy, 35-year-old attorney Allan Gifford, who is apparently about to be engaged to one wealthy socialite while also having an affair with the chief OR nurse. If that doesn’t make him enough of a catch, he, too, is ridiculously prejudiced against women doctors. “Why should a pretty little girl like you go into anything so gruesome as the practice of medicine?” he asks her when they first meet. He repeatedly pressures her to marry him, but is very open about his insistence that she quit medicine if she does, so she doesn’t really take him seriously.
The book rolls along and we watch Chris tackle with varying degrees of success various medical situations, always carrying the weight of her entire gender on her back. I will say she is a bit on the wimpy side and does have a tendency to break into tears, but the pressure of one’s intern year combined with the accompanying lack of sleep might do that to anyone. She is fierce in her regular and ongoing battles with Dr. Edmons about her capabilities, I will give her that: “Don’t you dare say that’s why I have no business doctoring,” she snaps at him when he tells her that women can’t be doctors because they have “a tender heart.” “Men have tender hearts, too. Don’t they? Don’t they?” (Dr. Edmons, who is obviously falling in love with Chris, begrudgingly admits she may be right.)
Two of the more interesting cases that Dr. Metcalf encounters involve reproductive rights: a young woman, pregnant by a bounder, who asks for an abortion—Chris refuses because it’s illegal and she is only an intern without the requisite skills; it’s not clear which is the bigger obstacle—and in another case a woman who is having her appendix out asks to have her ovaries removed as well. Dr. Edmons refuses to do it because the ovaries are not diseased, but Chris replies that they would take out healthy ovaries during a hysterectomy. The argument is dropped before it progresses, but it is curious that author Elizabeth Seifert introduces these weighty topics in such an offhanded manner.
Eventually, as you knew there would be, there is a case of serious sabotage at the nearby Army ordnance plant in which a plane crashes into it, and Chris and Dr. Edmons work all night to save the burned men. Chris than deduces who the scurrilous foreign agent is—the only character with a German accent (*eyeroll*)—and plays a large role in bringing the criminal to justice, with the help of Allan Gifford, who turns out to be FBI! Unfortunately, “all the glamour Cooper and Hoover have given to the G-men, the aura of Sherlock Holmes—all glimmered about Allen’s big, homely person” and now she thinks she is in love with him and accepts his ring, “the badge of submission, of subordination.” Well, that sounds lovely! Then he is injured in a shooting accident and she saves his life, proving to everyone that she is a “real” doctor—but also to herself that she is not in love with Allan: “Have I got so hard, so unfeeling that I could have done what I did for Allan, if I really loved him—the way I should love him?”
Overall, this is a low-key, satisfying book by an excellent author. It’s not especially exciting or unique, but it is well-written and has a quiet humor in several instances that unfortunately doesn’t translate to the Best Quotes section. It certainly is a slice of life of a young woman trying to forge her way through a career that is difficult today, much less 75 (!!) years ago, and if the incessant prejudice is trying for us to endure, I imagine it was a great deal more so for the brave women who actually lived through it. If this gentle book isn’t the most memorable, it has a pleasant competence that makes it worth reading about Dr. Chris.