The Making of a Woman Surgeon by Elizabeth Morgan MD

Trawling through the internet one day I came across this little book published in 1981 (when KBW was playing doctors and nurses at Playgroup) by one Elizabeth Morgan, a plastic surgeon who as well as being the medical columnist for Cosmopolitan under Helen Gurley Brown’s editorship, was one of very few women to become a surgeon in the late seventies. It’s a rather clumsy title but well worth the ridiculous price of 97 pence that amazon had it listed for.

“Any woman is strong enough to do any surgery except surgery on the shoulder, hip and knee joints of an adult. Then she needs two or three men to help her.”

Hmmm. Not sure that I agree with everything she says in her book but it is an interesting account of her training, written from contemporaneous diaries she had made in the two seconds each day she wasn’t working.

“I felt betrayed when another woman surgeon, just as capable as I was, wept and complained when things got tough”. Now we are all a little bit guilty of this, I have no patience with crying (do it alone in the toilet or in the car, but never at work) and have been a bit scornful of the pathetically pregnant who waddle from 12 weeks and are too tired to operate, but I am working on being more sympathetic. Not everyone has easy pregnancies. Dr Morgan is not a crier and does not show weakness or doubt to colleagues.

I love how americans have people they “dated” it sounds much less significant than ex-boyfriend. “Do you know so and so? Yes I dated him years ago”: way less dramatic than “Yes, we went out for a year and then he dumped me and I cried for six weeks and gained a stone”. Anyway, there is a psychiatry ex boyfriend who is the only one who comes close to the inner Lizzie, in suggesting she is closed, defensive and exhausted and that surgery has changed her.

She is (like me) weight obsessed: “I was beginning to feel fat, because I had gained five pounds since coming to Boston and I was now 135 pounds..A diet I thought masochistically, would be the perfect compliment to all my suffering”.

She weighs the same as me! The mad eating disordered competitive monster that lurks inside me now wants to find out how tall she is. What she doesn’t touch on much are the issues that bother me on a regular basis: leading a team, handling conflict with men, endlessly having to assert my authority as people assume I am not in charge and that a (more junior) man is. Telling nurses (usually women) what to do, dealing with not being popular when you do have to point out mistakes, being a crap mum the days I work and being a girl (heels, skirts, wearing pink) at work. Even the practicalities of being a girl, bleeding every month,can turn a 10 hour operation into even more of a stress wondering if blood is slowly seeping through your scrubs*.

Anyway, I read this book with great interest, an account of her training as it happened. Light on any deep and meaningful observations, heavy on “this one time I…” In some ways the world has changed completely since she wrote this and women doctors are soon to be in the majority (by 2017 over half of UK doctors will be female) but we are still under represented in surgery. I suspect Dr Morgan was too busy being a surgeon to think to much about being a woman. Certainly when she wrote this book she was unmarried and childless, so had none of the guilt and pressures that I have. Working late on birthdays and missing first days of school and failing to sew in name labels and not making swimming galas and not being the wife you might be if you were only at home a bit longer each day..

I have waited a long time to publish this post, mainly as after reading and researching this book I realised that she is still in practice as a plastic surgeon in the US and I didn’t want this to impact on her in any way. If you wiki her you can read all about her subsequent career and life and she also has a website for her private practice. I suspect it would be more interesting to read about her thoughts on being a woman surgeon now she is well established in her career and has 30 years to look back on. The copy of the book I bought from a second hand book seller is from the Paw Paw Public Library in Michigan and has never been checked out by anyone. It’s found a home with me now though.

*reasonable people will wonder why we don’t excuse ourselves to go to the bathroom for 2 minutes. You wouldn’t dare, you wouldn’t want to seem so weak, you would lose your position at the table and be told not to scrub back in. It’s a test.

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4 thoughts on “The Making of a Woman Surgeon by Elizabeth Morgan MD

  1. Interesting lady, never met her but heard about her from my American colleagues. Did you read about the Elizabeth Morgan Act?! Anyway, have to agree about sniffling female residents and registrars. I have to physically close my eyes so they won’t see me rolling it!!!

  2. What it seems to me is that surgery is like the Marines. Regardless of gender..it’s not for everyone. Re Dr Morgan I do wonder if her life has changed now that she’s climbed the greasy pole and can pick and choose..or have those days gone as well??

    • Haha. There are certainly plenty of
      People who think they are the best of the best. There are also a lot of military surgeons who work with us and do reservist work with the army. I’d love to sit next to her on a plane and hear about her experiences.

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