Elizabeth Morgan Says She Learned Women Surgeons Don't Have to Be as Good as Men—They Have to Be Better

updated 09/29/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/29/1980 01:00AM

A man was brought into a New Haven hospital, his head crushed by a beating. Elizabeth Morgan, a neurosurgery intern, was called in to stitch the clearly mortal wound. She decided it did not matter if the sutures in a doomed patient weren't neat.

"Take them out," the chief resident, also a woman, rebuked her. "Never do sloppy work. You can't be satisfied with being as good as the men. You have to be better."

The patient died as expected, but not before his wound had been scrupulously closed. Morgan learned her lesson on that day in 1972. "There was more pressure on the women," Morgan, now 33, recalls. "They wouldn't say, 'Elizabeth Morgan did that,' but 'Women surgeons did that.' If we botched something, it would plague any woman who later came through."

Now a plastic surgeon in the Washington, D.C. area, Morgan has written a sometimes caustic memoir, The Making of a Woman Surgeon. Favorably reviewed—and optioned by Norman Lear for a TV movie—it describes her medical training as baptism by ire. Playboy pinups illustrated physiology classes, and many doctors "considered you an easy lay—because you dissected a penis you must be uninhibited."

Women surgeons are still rare. There are only about 4,000 of them in the country (out of a total of 102,000). Morgan is also one of 56 women among 2,026 board-certified plastic surgeons. If she does not look the part of a medical pioneer, she isn't displeased. She has worn street clothes rather than hospital-issue white coats and skirts since her internship days because "those outfits made me look like a sack of Pillsbury flour."

While Morgan has also crusaded against sexism in her profession, she acknowledges that women doctors have different styles than men. "Women tend to be quieter, more openly sympathetic, less impatient and they try to explain things more," she says.

Her experiences as an attractive young woman studying and working with mostly male colleagues have been mixed. She has refused to date any doctors she worked with. "There's a lot of hospital gossip about women doctors in love. They talk about it in the operating room. I didn't want to be the source of anyone's speculation."

She has, however, dated doctors outside her hospital and, as a resident, nearly married one. But she recalls, "While he was getting serious, I was so tired I couldn't think about anything except getting through the day and sleep." Her current steady is a Washington lawyer.

Male egos have not been her only problem. One woman resident who "always cried on somebody's shoulder and got them to do her work for her" made Morgan aware that she had changed her own personality as a weapon against discrimination. "I had become an absolutely difficult, quarrelsome, disagreeable battle-ax," she says. "I finally realized I didn't want to have people say, 'You know Dr. Morgan, she can operate, but let's not have her around.' "

At that point Elizabeth tearfully sought—and got—reassurance from her mother, Antonia, 65. A British-born, Oxford-educated psychologist, she and her husband, William, now 70, operated a joint practice in psychology for more than 30 years from their Merrifield, Va., home. They sent Elizabeth to Radcliffe at 16, and in 1967 she became one of seven women in her Yale medical school class. ("The interviews at Harvard were definitely anti-female.") She completed the last of her residencies in 1978 at Cambridge Hospital in Massachusetts. "I got superb training," she says, "by some really great men, a lot of outstanding surgeons and a couple of stinkers."

She went into plastic surgery, she says, because "in general surgery, you take things away; I wanted to put things together again." Her first patient demanded to be made to look like Elvis Presley. She dissuaded him, pointing out, "You can only have a nose like Elvis Presley if you are Elvis Presley." Her reputation spread, and she earned $100,000 last year.

Now Morgan has limited her practice while she puts the finishing touches on a second book about her career. She plans to open a new office in D.C. early next year but first hopes to spend four weeks as a volunteer at Dr. W. Larimer Mellon's isolated Hôpital Albert Schweitzer in Haiti (PEOPLE, April 28).

At least one person is not surprised that Morgan would take off for the Haitian interior. "I always wanted Elizabeth to feel she could support herself without having to depend on a husband," says her mother. "She's never taken the easy way out."

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