Although Rothman’s novel is a work of fiction, the author’s inspiration for the title character is based on cardiologist Maude Abbott, one of Canada’s first female physicians.
The focus is on Agnes White, née Agnès Bourret, whose father was a physician of note until his career was ruined by the accusation that he had murdered his disabled sister. He leaves when Agnes is four years old and his wife pregnant with Agnes’ sister Laure, and it never becomes clear, even when Agnes reunites with him some 44 years later, whether he’s guilty of the crime or not (she suspects he is). A precocious child, Agnes prefers spending time dissecting squirrels and looking through microscopes rather than pursuing traditional (and more socially acceptable) “female” activities of the late 19th century. She receives an excellent secondary education and becomes one of the first women admitted to Montreal’s McGill University, and her academic career is at least tolerated until she makes it clear she wants to attend McGill medical school. The dean and the all-male faculty make it difficult for Agnes by requiring her to come up with $250,000 to accommodate separate facilities, but even when, with the help of enlightened and liberal friends, she comes up with this enormous sum, the medical college refuses to enroll her. She gets her degree at a rival institution, however, and is eventually put in charge of a museum of pathology that contains a number of her father’s prize specimens—hearts preserved for medical study. Besides her absent father, Agnes meets two men with extreme influence on her life: William Howlett, a prominent heart specialist, and Jakob Hertzlich, an eccentric but brilliant medical student who never earns his degree.
Rothman clearly admires this early feminist pioneer, who overcomes tremendous male prejudice to establish a distinguished career in her own right.