By Nancy Herriman
I have a long-standing fascination with characters who work in medical fields and feature them regularly in my books. So when it came time to develop the idea for my new mystery series set in 1860s San Francisco, I gravitated toward my sleuth being a nurse, a woman who would regularly encounter death.
According to the 1867 Directory for San Francisco, there were approximately seventy-five women working in various medical occupations–midwives, nurses, female physicians (a euphemism for abortionists), and a handful of self-styled physicians utilizing spiritual or water cures. Even for those women offering traditional care, the training would have been sparse, the medical professions still ruled by men who resisted the attempts of females to invade their territory. The only information most women gained came from books, or from their mothers or other female relatives who knew how to prepare herbal treatments or homeopathic remedies.
Beginning in the 1840s, religious societies in Europe were the main source of trained nurses. Their training also was rudimentary, with nearly as much or more time spent on receiving religious instruction as on any clinical exposure to patient care. In America, it wasn’t until 1849 that the first woman, Elizabeth Blackwell, received a degree in medicine, and her path to achieve that degree had been difficult and nearly accidental. Even with her success, avenues for women to pursue legitimate training remained elusive.
Furthermore, nursing as an occupation was considered unsuitable for gently-raised women. However, the need for nurses came to the forefront during the Crimean War, when understaffed British field hospitals suffered high mortality rates among the soldiers. However, nursing duties consisted primarily of women providing ‘female companionship.’ Viewed as fragile and possessing an inferior intellect, female nurses were generally restricted to simple chores–preparing and serving meals, bathing feverish foreheads, reading to the patients or writing letters for them. Any tasks resembling what we consider today to be the jobs of nurses were left to male orderlies and doctors. Nonetheless, some women gained a taste of their possible roles in the medical field and hungered for more opportunities.
In 1850, the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania opened. This was the first college in the world with a primary purpose of conferring medical degrees upon women. In 1861, the school’s role expanded to include the training of nurses. It is at this school that my fictional sleuth, Celia Davies, receives her education.
Celia will put that education to use when she opens a clinic in San Francisco treating women of limited means. The world she serves is often struck by violence, and Celia is too committed to her patients to leave all the detective work to the police. Her training will prove a valuable asset to her newfound role of sleuth.
About the book:
No Pity for the Dead
A Mystery of Old San Francisco
By Nancy Herriman
NAL Obsidian Mystery
On sale: August 2, 2016