The books that make you glad for modern medicine

Why am I passionate about this?

Stuck at home during the pandemic, I started watching historical fiction and fell in love with the British miniseries, Hornblower. Suddenly I found myself writing my own stories about an imprisoned midshipman and Ella Parker, a surgeon that saves him. But there was a plot hole. Women could not be doctors in 19th-century England, leave alone ship surgeons. Thus, I sent Ella into medical school disguised as a man, and Hearts and Sails series was born. Looking for interesting cases for Ella to observe and treat, I became obsessed with the history of modern medicine. I also wanted my character to overcome great obstacles and eventually prove to others what a woman can do.

I wrote...

A Girl with a Knife

By Alina Rubin,

Book cover of A Girl with a Knife

What is my book about?

After the heartbreaking loss of her mother and a cruel attack by her drunken father, Ella Parker decides that dishonesty is fine when it serves her needs. At a time when wealthy young ladies do little more than embroidery, Ella escapes her luxurious but lonely life, disguises herself as male medical student, and finds her footing in the university. When she brilliantly saves a patient and gains the approval of a famed professor, she must choose between truth and lies, and distinguish between real and false friends, before her pretense is discovered.

Enjoy a riveting adventure set in a 19th-century medical school, decades before anesthesia, germ theory, or antibiotics. Follow Ella as she cares for patients, conducts experiments, and learns the value of friendship.    

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Girl in His Shadow

Alina Rubin Why did I love this book?

The Girl in His Shadow is my favorite comparative fiction. Similar to my story, Nora Beady lives in England, at the time when woman couldn’t practice medicine. But Nora’s path is very different from Ella Parker’s. Nora is a secret assistant to famous Dr. Croft, but her position is threatened when Dr. Daniel Gibson joins the practice. Soon Dr. Gibson sees Nora’s value, and the two become friends and more. The novel is very well-researched, beautifully written, and kept me hooked to the end. This book is great for fans of woman’s fiction with a medical theme. Be ready for detailed surgeries, experiments with ether, patients lost to difficult births and infections, and slow but sure steps of medical progress and perseverance. 

Readers who enjoy the medical details of my book will be treated to a galore of similar themes in The Girl in His Shadow. In the 1840s, doctors used stethoscopes and experimented with ether but were still far from the effectiveness and safety of modern medicine. The characters are believable and intriguing. The characters of Dr. Gibson, Dr. Croft, and Nora are likable and developed. The book left me wanting more, and I was excited when the sequel came out.   

By Audrey Blake,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Girl in His Shadow as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"An exquisitely detailed journey through the harrowing field of medicine in mid-19th century London."-Tracey Enerson Wood, USA Today bestselling author of The Engineer's Wife and The War Nurse
An unforgettable historical fiction novel about one woman who believed in scientific medicine before the world believed in her.
London, 1845: Raised by the eccentric surgeon Dr. Horace Croft after losing her parents to a deadly pandemic, the orphan Nora Beady knows little about conventional life. While other young ladies were raised to busy themselves with needlework and watercolors, Nora was trained to perfect her suturing and anatomical…

Book cover of The Surgeon's Daughter

Alina Rubin Why did I love this book?

Hooked on book 1, The Girl in His Shadow, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the sequel. Here Nora is studying in medical school in Italy, one of few places that admitted women at the time. While Nora is learning Cesarian section and struggling with the attitudes of male doctors and students, Dr. Gibson works hard to save ill children in London and keep Dr. Croft’s clinic operating. 

I enjoyed the second book almost as much as the first. At times the pace slowed, and some secondary characters were not developed, which is why I say “almost.” I’m glad that I published my book three months before The Surgeon’s Daughter came out. Some similarities, down to minor characters names, were almost uncanny.  

Book cover of The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine

Alina Rubin Why did I love this book?

Of all the books I’ve used in research for my book, this one was my favorite. While this non-fiction work details the life of Dr. Lister, who lived later in the 19th century, it gives a view of what a hospital was like before germs were discovered. Unwashed hands, soiled sheets, bloodied aprons, and surgical instruments—Dr. Fitzharris spares no details in her riveting book. A hospital was a stepstone to the grave. Medical students and doctors caught infections and died. Butchering Art made the world of 19th-century medicine so vivid to my imagination that I was able to write my fiction with sharp details that shocked and impressed the readers.

By Lindsey Fitzharris,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Butchering Art as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner, 2018 PEN/E.O. Wilson Prize for Literary Science Writing
Short-listed for the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize
A Top 10 Science Book of Fall 2017, Publishers Weekly
A Best History Book of 2017, The Guardian

"Warning: She spares no detail!" —Erik Larson, bestselling author of Dead Wake

In The Butchering Art, the historian Lindsey Fitzharris reveals the shocking world of nineteenth-century surgery and shows how it was transformed by advances made in germ theory and antiseptics between 1860 and 1875. She conjures up early operating theaters—no place for the squeamish—and surgeons, who, working before anesthesia, were lauded for their speed and…

Book cover of The Perfect Gentleman

Alina Rubin Why did I love this book?

I’m often asked if Ella Parker is based on Dr. James Barry. She’s not. But I was glad to confirm that history recorded at least one woman was able to disguise herself as a man and become a distinguished doctor. The biography of Dr. Barry is intriguing, well-written, and shows how brilliant and mysterious an individual he was. The best find for me was the list of classes Barry attended at the University of Edinburgh. I sent my main character into the same classes, including the optional midwifery, and the private class with a prestigious teacher. This biography gave me many answers about this remarkable doctor, but also left me with questions. 

By June Rose,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Perfect Gentleman as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

James Barry was one of the most outstanding doctors of the nineteenth century – a brilliant surgeon, a tireless campaigner for medical reform, and a compassionate Inspector-General of the Army.

But throughout a long and distinguished career an air of secrecy, even of scandal, always clung to Barry. The shrill voice, the diminutive build, the almost ostentatious humanity – all struck a discordant note in the stiff, conventional world of the officers’ mess. Only after the doctor’s death in 1865 did the incredible truth come to light:

Dr. James Barry was a woman.

What was her real identity? How did…

Book cover of Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything

Alina Rubin Why did I love this book?

I scoured this book for strange and dangerous remedies people used to administer and it didn’t disappoint. Arsenic, mercury, bloodletting, to name a few. When I read about leeches used to treat painful menstruation, I put the book down… to add that gem into my fiction, of course. Interesting stories, great illustrations, great learning, and fun.

By Lydia Kang, Nate Pedersen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Quackery as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A tour of medicine's most outlandish misfires, Quackery dives into 35 "treatments", exploring their various uses and why they thankfully fell out of favour - some more recently than you might think. Looking back in horror and a dash of dark humour, the book provides readers with an illuminating lesson in how medicine is very much an evolving process of trial and error, and how the doctor doesn't always know bests.

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Book cover of Dulcinea

Ana Veciana-Suarez Author Of Dulcinea

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I became fascinated with 16th-century and 17th-century Europe after reading Don Quixote many years ago. Since then, every novel or nonfiction book about that era has felt both ancient and contemporary. I’m always struck by how much our environment has changed—transportation, communication, housing, government—but also how little we as people have changed when it comes to ambition, love, grief, and greed. I doubled down my reading on that time period when I researched my novel, Dulcinea. Many people read in the eras of the Renaissance, World War II, or ancient Greece, so I’m hoping to introduce them to the Baroque Age. 

Ana's book list on bringing to life the forgotten Baroque Age

What is my book about?

Dolça Llull Prat, a wealthy Barcelona woman, is only 15 when she falls in love with an impoverished poet-solder. Theirs is a forbidden relationship, one that overcomes many obstacles until the fledgling writer renders her as the lowly Dulcinea in his bestseller.

By doing so, he unwittingly exposes his muse to gossip. But when Dolça receives his deathbed note asking to see her, she races across Spain with the intention of unburdening herself of an old secret.

On the journey, she encounters bandits, the Inquisition, illness, and the choices she's made. At its heart, Dulcinea is about how we betray the people we love, what happens when we succumb to convention, and why we squander the few chances we get to change our lives.

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