The Best Shows About Pioneering Women Doctors

Slate's Culture Blog
July 5 2012 10:55 AM

Stream On: Pioneering Women Doctors

bramwell
Jemma Redgrave in Bramwell

With America fixated on how the Supreme Court’s recent decision will affect our health care system, this is the perfect time to watch Bramwell, a British drama about medicine in Victorian London. All four seasons, which aired in Britain 1995-98, are available on Netflix.

At the beginning of the first season, Dr. Eleanor Bramwell—played by Jemma Redgrave, the most underappreciated member of her famous acting family—finds herself marginalized and mocked by mean-spirited male doctors who resent her presence at the East London Hospital. These doctors treat female patients like dim children—hysteria is a standard diagnosis, and it is treated by removing the ovaries. When Eleanor is dismissed from the hospital, a rich widow offers her a position running a charity hospital in the slums of the East End, and with it a long-denied chance to become a surgeon.

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Like Mad Men, the show is full of self-regarding backward glances, in this case to a time when medicine was more primitive and women and working-class men were treated with open disdain. The plots tend toward the sociological and soapy, with the occasional amputation to liven things up—but Redgrave is such a charismatic and convincing lead that it’s hard to look away, even when the makeup team demonstrates how well they can simulate a gangrenous limb.

Netflix also offers the first three series of Murdoch Mysteries, a Canadian drama based on a series of novels by Maureen Jennings. Set in the same period, albeit on the other side of the Atlantic, these detective tales also include a pioneering female doctor, in this case Julia Ogden, an early pathologist.

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

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