Foodie Lit
Richard Alan Schwartz's The Surgeon

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In the course of The Surgeon by Richard Alan Schwartz, we become immersed in the Civil War, its surgeons, its soldiers and the limitations of medical practice in the 1860’s. Main character, Dr. Abbey Kaplan fights head surgeon, her superior Dr. Fellow’s intransigence in accepting procedures that would save lives, such as new concepts of sanitation, for operations for stomach wounds and understanding emotional stress we now call PTSD.


I asked Richard about innovations and the reaction to them and he answered, “Florence Nightingale…in the Crimean War, from 1853 to 1856, learned or developed ideas … leading to sanitation practices that would save countless patients…. My research indicates doctors didn’t listen to her as she was a nurse and nursing was considered a lowly occupation for the uneducated.  Narcissism among doctors was rampant, and life-threatening, to say the least.”


Abbey Kaplan is a minority: a woman, a Jew and an educated female surgeon. Richard shared, “The more I wrote about her, the more she kept telling me I should write an entire novel about her. For the Civil War novel, I combined traits of lady doctors who served during the war. Both Federalist and Confederate.”


Richard uses his medical experience from his time in the Viet Nam War when he worked with medics on wound care. He brings this experience and additional research to his writing, which adds depth, making Abbey Kaplan seem real.


Dr. Fellows, with whom she serves as assistant surgeon, greeted her with “This must be some kind of mistake...a woman…disgusting…I can’t be burdened with a woman.” Few men accepted her as a physician and a surgeon. Most were rude and condescending, feeling threatened by any woman in authority.


This rejection of women also played into the issue of sanitation. The US Sanitation Commission was founded by women and some research regarding new standards and many positive results came from female nurses.


Richard brings several women to Abbey’s surgical tent who have studied medicine, nursing and the new science of pharmacology. They experiment with these innovations, often against the orders of their superiors. There is a split in the opinions of the male military surgeons. Some support Abbey’s way of thinking. The majority however are against women as doctors and surgeons and against any improvements they may bring.


In one of my favorite scenes, Abbey and a disapproving male doctor have a confrontation. Not only doesn’t Dr. Connolly want to work with her, he doesn’t allow her into male wards, even though male doctors are allowed into female wards.  When Dr. Kaplan complains about this unequal treatment, he responds, “How dare you talk to be like that! You have no business being here in the first place. The very idea of a female doctor is abhorrent.”


He then slaps her across the face.


Abbey, 6’ tall and well trained by her father and brothers in self-defense, slams her right fist into the doctor’s face, follows with a left upper cut to his belly and a right to his jaw. She then throws him out of the surgical tent.  Dr. Connolly never reports the incident as he couldn’t admit he slapped her nor that he was beaten up by a woman. He requests a transfer to another unit and Abbey is on the road to respect from her colleagues. What a great scene!


Like other soldiers and medical personnel, Abbey suffers from the consequences of war: the unending numbers of wounded soldiers and civilians, their pain, dying and mental anguish. She herself is wounded, sees friends die and has nightmares.  Yet Abbey manages to do surgery for hours each day, reads about new procedures and performs gratis, cleft palate surgeries for civilians in the area. Her strength and sacrifice, like many other medical personnel in the Civil War and beyond, makes her a hero in her own right.


Despite her immersion into work, Abbey yearns for love with a man who will treat her like an equal.  Abbey and friend Lt. Scharf, while on leave together, go to a German restaurant outside of Gettysburg.  For dessert after a wonderful meal, they order Nusstriezel, a buttery sweet yeast bread. My version uses peach jam, raisins soaked in rum and slivers of almonds. Delicous!

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