Wednesday, October 18, 2023

When Women Doctors Solve Crime: Introducing Ritu Mukerji


Ritu Mukerji

Ritu Mukerji, Murder by Degrees author

Today I'm using my space in Murder is Everywhere to introduce a rising mystery talent: Dr. Ritu Mukerji.I met Ritu at a book signing in the Bay Area and learned about Murder By Degrees, her forthcoming crime fiction debut with Simon&Schuster. The novel featuring the young physician Lydia Weston is set in 1870s century Philadelphia, where a one-of-a-kind medical school founded by Quakers trained female physicians from 1850 until it began admitting males in the 1970s. The Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania, later the Medical College of Pennsylvania, is now merged with Hahnemann University and is still going strong as a co-educational medical school. 

Ritu is a beautiful storyteller who skillfully uses her medical expertise to craft some amazing scenes, including an autopsy described with both compassion and Sherlockian rigor. Fans of historical mystery,  feminist fiction, Philadelphia history, and medical thrillers will all find satisfaction in this book that will launch a series.


By Ritu Mukerji

Philadelphia, 1875: it is the start of the autumn term at Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. Dr. Lydia Weston, professor and anatomist, is immersed in teaching her students in the clinic and the hospital. When the body of a young patient is dredged out of the Schuylkill River, Lydia takes on a new role: amateur investigator. She soon joins the police investigation and in the end, it is her keen clinical acumen and skill at the autopsy table that solves the mystery.


My debut novel, Murder by Degrees, combines many of the elements I love in mystery fiction: a strong independent woman sleuth, a few good twists and a setting so evocative, it could be like a character itself. I am a doctor and had been a medical student myself in Philadelphia, walking the same the same cobblestone streets as my characters. Many of the influences for the book simmered in my mind for years, my imagination sparked by a painting or old photograph.


When I was a student at Jefferson, the medical college owned Thomas Eakins’s painting The Gross Clinic. At the time, the painting was displayed in Alumni Hall on Walnut Street. It is an unforgettable scene, as Dr. Gross forcefully wields his scalpel during surgery and an onlooker shields her face in horror. I would often stop to look at it on my way to lecture, imagining what it would have been like to practice medicine back then.


It was only later that I learned of “Woman’s Med”, a unique institution, founded by Quakers in 1850, that was one of the first medical schools for women in the US. I knew that the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania would be the perfect setting for a mystery novel.

I was fascinated by these trailblazing women doctors. There was Dr. Ann Preston: Quaker, abolitionist, and a pro-temperance activist who was also a children's book author. Preston entered medical college at age 38 and later became its dean. Dr. Caroline Still Anderson, a class of 1878 graduate, became one of the first Black women physicians in the United States. Dr. Mary Putnam Jacob, physician and researcher, was the first female member of the Academy of Medicine. And some of the international students, like Drs. Anandibai Joshi, Keiko Okami, and Sabat Islambouli, graduated and returned to their home countries to practice medicine. 

Even more intriguing are those whose names are less well known. A fragment from a diary entry or record could give hint to their life. Many were delightfully "non-traditional" students. Some had progressive parents and an activist bent, mixing medicine with work for abolition and women's suffrage. Some of the students had careers as teachers and writers before entering the college. One remarkable woman, a widow with grown children, graduated at age 58.

I explored Drexel University’s Legacy Center Archives and Special Collections in Philadelphia, who have carefully preserved photographs and documents from this era. This made it possible to look through many of the papers from the 1870s: graduation announcements, student theses, minutes of faculty meeting, student scrapbooks with photos of the dissection lab and the lecture hall. The wonderful ephemera provided a glimpse into workings of the college.


My favorites were the yearly course bulletin, with its list of class requirements and recommended textbooks to buy–it felt oddly familiar to this former medical student. I suppose some things never change…And I am still wondering what a microscopical soiree is and how I might get invited to one.

What makes Lydia Weston unique as a detective is her ability to observe: to see what other don’t. To make that vivid for the reader, I had to think like a 19th-century doctor–what would it have been like to diagnose a patient, using the tools of the time? How it would have felt to be in the anatomy lab doing a dissection by gaslight, or to examine patients on rounds in the hospital, in the early days of antisepsis.


I read widely in old medical textbooks and journal articles. In one scene, Lydia treats a patient with glomerulonephritis, an inflammation of the kidneys. According to an 1876 article in The Lancet, the recommended treatments included hot and cold-water baths, purgatives and emetics, the “Imperial Drink” (cream of tartar and lemon) and bloodletting with leeches.

To create the historical detail for the story, I pored over old street maps and photographs of Philadelphia. It was fun to return to the city on a research trip and see familiar sites anew. 

One of my favorite scenes to write was a chase through the Fairmount Waterworks at night. In 1875, the Neoclassical buildings of the waterworks were a graceful screen for the turbines that purified the city’s water supply. It was a popular promenade in Fairmount Park, by the Schuylkill River. And on a recent walk there, I felt transported to another time (minus the roar of traffic on the I-95 across the river, of course).


Another scene takes place at Pennsylvania Hospital, when Lydia goes on rounds with a student. The nation’s first public hospital, founded by Benjamin Franklin and Dr. Thomas Bond, opened its doors in 1751. Today it is an ultramodern hospital, part of the University of Pennsylvania system. But walking through the grounds, I could imagine porters opening the large gatehouse door in the dead of night, so that patients could be brought in by carriage.

One of the things I love about Philadelphia is its historic atmopshere. It only takes a moment–a turn down a cobblestone street or a walk through Independence Square–to feel as though you are stepping back in time. I hope readers enjoy the book and the real-life “lady doctors” who inspired it.


Ritu Mukerji was born in Kolkata, India, and grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. She received a BA in history from Columbia University and a medical degree from Sidney Kimmel Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. After residency training at the University of California, Davis, she has practiced as an internist for fifteen years. She lives in Marin County, CA with her husband and three children.  


  1. Sounds like a fascinating novel, Ritu, thanks!

  2. Ritu, thank you so much for this post. This is a fascinating and important pocket of women's history and I cannot wait to read the novel.

  3. Fascinating! I never knew Women's Med existed. Can't wait to read your book. My father went to Jefferson. I like to think of him also studying The Gross Clinic.

  4. Thank you for this. New to me and fascinating!

  5. Thank you, Ritu, for bringing me back to to the days when I once considered attending Jeff but stumbled off into law school instead. Now we're both into the writing life. Welcome!!! Jeff