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An Examination and Celebration of Family History Inspires Historical Fiction

A Guest Post by Janis Robinson Daly, August 6, 2022



My interest in women’s historical fiction stemmed from reading Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent upon its release in 1997 with my book club. When asked about her writing of the re-telling of Dinah from the Bible, Diamant stated: “I believe that women’s history and women’s stories are still under-told, which means there’s a hunger for them.”


Twenty-five years later, we’re still hungry.


To assuage our appetite, authors like Marie Benedict and Kate Quinn have served up some of those women. We devoured those stories, propelling them onto best-seller lists with a flourish worthy of any delectable dessert. Benedict, who co-authored The Personal Librarian with Victoria Christopher Murray, introduces Belle da Costa Greene, the woman behind the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. In The Diamond Eye, Quinn reveals the work of a WWII Soviet sniper, Lyudmila “Mila” Pavlichenko.


Yet, where do authors find those under-told stories of the women who have remained in the shadows of history? Mila Pavlichenko surfaced during Quinn’s research for The Huntress’ Night Witch pilots, where she “ran smack into the astounding story of a library-researcher-turned-sniper responsible for 309 kills during WWII.” In her author’s note, Benedict shares how she learned about da Costa Greene from a docent at the library, not from any library plaque or public acknowledgment of Belle’s incredible work curating the library’s collection over forty-five years.


My writing of The Unlocked Path, a woman’s historical fiction about graduates of the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, did not begin with unearthing information on one of those female graduates. Rather, the discovery of a male lawyer in Pennsylvania in the mid-to-late 1800s first drove me down the rabbit hole of research, where every twist in the tunnel revealed an interesting fact. An abolitionist lawyer and earnest advocate of emancipation, who was the counsel of the slave in nearly every fugitive-slave case in Philadelphia in the 1850s. A lawyer turned judge who sat on the bench of the Court of Common Pleas for twenty years. A gentleman known for his ability to quote Bible phrases, including his favorite from Solomon 2:17, which appears on his gravestone, Until the day’s dawn and the shadows flee away. A father to seven daughters and one son who lived to adulthood. Whose daughters a friend described as “women of character and intellectual training”, not a common statement about women in the 1870s. Who was this accomplished and esteemed man and why was I researching him?


As my younger son graduated from college and I faced empty hours of an empty nest, I tapped into a buried interest. For decades, I divided my time between a career in sales and marketing and driving, driving, driving, and cheering, for two sons who were involved in sports, including the college level. As my car came to a stop, instead of taking up pickle ball, golf, or Pilates, or any other healthy, physical activity, I chose one which would keep my rear in a chair and my fingers on a keyboard: Genealogy research.



The aforementioned man was my great-great-grandfather, William Shannon Peirce, Esquire. His name popped onto my family tree while tracing my paternal grandmother’s roots in Philadelphia. I immediately became enamored with his background, at first thinking there was an idea lurking tied to his abolitionist work. Recall of another favorite, older title of women’s historical fiction, The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, which presents the work of abolitionists Sarah and Nina Grimke, also spurred my ideas. Yet, a single line at the end of one of his obituaries re-directed my thoughts. He and other prominent Philadelphians founded the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania.


Pause and pivot. Sitting in my rabbit hole, a new tunnel opened. As a graduate of Wheaton College in Norton Massachusetts, at the time a woman’s college, I knew first-hand of the supportive relationships which develop between students, faculty, and alumnae at a women’s institution and the heightened awareness of female-centric issues and challenges. I needed to crawl into that new tunnel to learn more about this woman’s medical school. Why did it exist? Who attended? What did they accomplish? What were their stories which have languished in the folds of history? So many questions. I needed answers.


The Woman’s Medical College (WMC) of Pennsylvania opened in 1850 when women with a desire to become doctors were denied admission to existing medical schools. These women answered a call to heal, wanting to help women who avoided medical care by men because of a sense of impropriety during the Victorian Age. Male doctors also often dismissed female complaints, which led to unnecessary illnesses and deaths.


Further, existing opinions held women were inferior in strength, resolve and intelligence. In response, the Board of Trustees and Faculty ensured WMC’s Entrance Exam was as, or more, difficult than male medical schools. They designed courses requiring laboratory work and clinical rotations, proving women could withstand the odors and oozes of pus, gore, and blood. They graduated women with the first accredited degrees in the country, despite the fifty police officers sent to control an angry mob of male medical students protesting that first graduation ceremony which conferred degrees on women. WMC remained the longest-running female only school, nearly 125 years, until it admitted a few men in 1970. Its formal merger with Drexel University began in 2002; was formalized and finalized in 2014.

While the history of the institution is remarkable, it is the stories of some of its graduates which inspired my characters in The Unlocked Path. Anandibai Gopal Joshi’s name and story appears as one of the first returns on a Google search. Entering WMC at eighteen, driven by a desire to heal other women after losing her infant son when she was fourteen, Anandibai became the first woman from India to earn a medical degree in the West. Her application letter impressed me with its eloquent words, magnifying and exemplifying other applicants’ desires:


The determination which has brought me to your country against the combined opposition of my friends and caste ought to go a long way towards helping me to carry out the purpose for which I came, i.e., is to render to my poor suffering countrywomen the true medical aid they so sadly stand in need of and which they would rather die than accept at the hands of a male physician. The voice of humanity is with me, and I must not fail. My soul is moved to help the many who cannot help themselves.


With a bit of creative license, Anandibai appears in my novel (she graduated in 1883), speaking to my fictional main character, Eliza Edwards, in 1897. I also include two other actual women who graduated at the time of Eliza in 1901. Charlotte Fairbanks, M.D. attended Smith and Yale before entering WMC. With an interest in surgery, she joined the American Women’s Hospital in France during WWI, serving as the chief surgeon. For her service, France awarded her a Medal of Gratitude. Olga Povitsky, M.D. arrived in Philadelphia at eighteen from Lithuania unable to speak English. She graduated in four years and accepted a position as a bacteriologist with the New York City Department of Health, where she worked for forty years. Her list of accomplishments runs long, from also serving with the American Women’s Hospital in France, to work on a diphtheria antitoxin and a serum to cure meningitis. Committed to laboratory research, she designed a flat-sided glass culture bottle, named for her and which Salk used as he worked on a polio vaccine.


I am forever grateful and humbled to have met Doctors Joshi, Fairbanks, and Povitsky. Through the pages of historical fiction, a new day dawns to brush away the shadows and reveal the stories of these brave and determined women. Trained with a sense of science and sympathy, their work ushered in a revolution in women’s medical care. I am proud to bring those stories forward in The Unlocked Path, thanks to a random genealogy search five years ago where I met a male lawyer. A man who defended the rights of the fugitive slave. A father and benefactor with the vision to nurture a woman’s intellect and abilities. My great-great-grandfather, William S. Peirce, Esquire.


So, climb onto the branches of genealogy research. Reach to pick the fruits on those limbs. You may just find a seed of an idea waiting to blossom into a novel.


Author Bio:


After a career in sales and marketing and raising two boys active in sports, right through the college level, I asked the age-old question, Now what? I didn’t spend long looking for my answer. I found it within the return hits from a genealogy search on my great-great-grandfather, William S. Peirce, Esquire. From FamousAmericans.net: He took an active part in founding the Woman’s Medical College in Philadelphia.


Inspired by that line, more research ensued, and a story and characters formed. The early graduates of the Woman’s Medical College have remained in the shadows. Their stories needed to be told. With a love of history, I balanced a need for authenticity and details with a flair to create emotional connections to fictional characters.


While my family has roots in Philadelphia, I am a Boston girl through and through, from my accent to the cans of baked beans in my pantry, to the New England Patriots flag that hangs over our driveway every fall. I grew up outside of Boston and remained in Massachusetts, graduating with a B.A. in Psychology from Wheaton College, at the time, an all-women’s college. At Wheaton, I developed a fond appreciation of the supportive relationships established between students, faculty, and alumnae and a heightened awareness of female-centric issues. Both directed my writing of The Unlocked Path.


With a plot and themes sketched, I enrolled in a creative writing course sponsored by Wesleyan University to hone my skills. Combining years of extensive research and feedback from writers’ conferences and a series of beta readers, I polished my manuscript and readied it for publication with Black Rose Writing.


Splitting my time between Cape Cod, New Hampshire, Florida and hotels along Route 95, a tablet became my Kindle library and desk, packed into a travel bag for reading and writing wherever I might land. My husband, along with our rescue pup, has willingly, and luckily, also embraced this nomadic lifestyle. More adventures beckon me to document other women in history whose stories need to be discovered.


Book Clubs: Participant in a local women’s group, advisor to several Facebook groups, guest facilitator for a library group, and resource for many with recommendations, tips, and ideas.


Professional Associations: Women’s Fiction Writers Association, Historical Novel Society, Cape Cod Writers Center


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3 תגובות


I always love hearing or reading about the back story and research authors dive into when writing their books. I especially enjoy when there is a personal connection to the story being told as it helps bring it to life! Great article and book!!

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Holly Mosby
Holly Mosby
10 באוג׳ 2022

So glad to know you and hear a little of your process. I heartily looking forward to reading The Unlocked Path! Best, Holly Mosby

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בתשובה לפוסט של

Thank you for reading. I can't wait to hear how you like The Unlocked Path!

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