American Civil War Medicine Part 6. Female Surgeons – Defiance in the Face of Adversity.

The Southern Skirmish Association, Bath 2011.

A few words upon a very important aspect of this question – the right of women to compete with men in any occupation by which they can earn a livelihood.  A woman has to pay like a man, she has neither mercy nor favour shown her because she is a woman, therefore she should have the same chance as a man, and the same pay if she can render as good work.  Why should not women enter the legal and medical profession…..During a four years’ sojourn in America I had the pleasure of knowing Dr Mary Walker, Dr Elizabeth Blackwell and hundreds of others who are doing the noblest work that is being done in the United States at the present time.  The medical profession is one particularly adapted to women.’

Ada Campbell, Liverpool, 21st September 1891

Ada Campbell wrote the above letter, on equal rights for women in the professions, 26 years after the end of The American Civil War (1861-1865).   Nearly 1,000 women disguised themselves as men and served as soldiers during the campaign, 3,000 white women became nurses and a handful of women served as physicians.  Dr Mary Edwards Walker, Dr Elizabeth Blackwell, Dr Esther Hill Hawks and Dr Sarah Ann Chadwick Clapp were among a pioneering group of medical professionals who broke with social conventions by offering their services for frontline duty.  They received a hostile reception from their male counterparts, who firmly believed that field medicine was a male environment and no place for women.  Undeterred, the feisty females continued to flout the accepted norm and all 4 demonstrated defiance in the face of adversity. 

Dr Blackwell (1821-1920) was the first female MD in the US, graduating from Geneva Medical College in 1849.  During the War she trained the nurses that were sent to the Union Army.  Dr Clapp was appointed assistant surgeon of the 7th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry and served in post between 15th November 1861 and 25th August 1862.  She also served as assistant surgeon/surgeon in general hospitals in Cairo, Illinois and aboard transport ships.  However, the medical examining board refused to give her an examination and she never received a commission or pay for her War work.  Dr Hawks (1833-1906) graduated from the New England Female Medical College in 1857.  At the start of the War she followed her husband, John Milton Hawks a regimental doctor with the U.S. Coloured Troops, to the South Carolina Sea Islands and Florida.  She treated the wounded from the attack on Fort Wagner and the Battle of Olustee.

Dr Walker (1832-1919) graduated from Syracuse Medical College in 1855.  At the outbreak of War she applied for a surgeon’s contract, a request which was flatly refused by the Medical Department.  She did not give-up and remained in Washington serving as a nurse in a number of camps and hospitals for Indiana troops.  Whilst working at the Indiana Hospital, Washington she met Dorothea Lynde Dix.  Dix had been appointed on 10th June 1861 by the Secretary of War as Superintendent of Female Nurses.  She was a formidable character and insisted that her nurses were over 30 and plain, lest they should incite sexual desire in the surgeons.  Dix’s nurses wore brown/black dresses, no bows, no curls, no jewelry and no hooped skirts. 

Mary made repeated attempts to secure the allusive surgeon’s contract and was abused for her demands.  After proving her worth during the battles of Fredericksburg (1862) and Chickamauga (1863) where she worked, unpaid, as a field surgeon, General Ambrose Burnside declared his confidence in her medical skills and recommended her for a commission.   In September 1863, Major General Thomas appointed her an assistant surgeon in the Army of the Cumberland and she was assigned to the 52nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry serving in Chattanooga.  Finally, in October 1864, she was officially commissioned as a Contract Surgeon and received the rank of First Lieutenant.

Although a talented and competent surgeon, Dr Walker’s temperament was described by her fellow surgeons as being cantankerous, abrasive, harassing, a professional scold and some thought her insane.  Always outspoken and never afraid to challenge her colleagues and their decisions. She was appalled that the battlefield surgeons were performing amputations with such regularity and in her view many were unnecessary.   She would undermine her colleagues by conspiring with the wounded soldier to challenge the Surgeon’s decision to remove a damaged limb.  She was equally horrified at the heavy doses of mercuric compounds that were being given to patients.

Dr Walker was a beautiful woman, with raven hair which she kept long and curled so that no one would think that she was a man.  The reason that she may have been mistaken for a man, was due to her unusual attire, for which she was famed and criticised for throughout her life.   Beginning at medical school she wore bloomers, much to the disgust of her lecturers.  Bloomers were the outfit of choice for radical feminists of the day and were first invented by Amelia Jenks Bloomer (1818-1894), who spearheaded the movement.  When Dr Walker began her medical career she abandoned the bloomers and wore instead a modified version of male dress, a calf-length skirt worn over trousers, teamed with an Army uniform jacket.  Whilst on front-line duty she would always carry 2 pistols about her person. 

On 10th April 1864, following a battle, Mary had stayed behind to tend Confederate wounded upon retirement of the Union Army.  She had taken a wrong turn in the camp and was captured by Confederate troops and charged with being a spy.   The Confederates believed that her male attire was a deliberate attempt to don a disguise and infiltrate the encampment.  She spent 4 months in prison and continued to be abused for the manner in which she dressed.  Eventually in August she was exchanged for a Confederate surgeon whom the Union Army had captured.  She was proud of the fact that the price on her head was that equal to a male surgeon and often boasted about it throughout her life. 

In 1866, she became President of the National Dress Reform Association which urged women to discard their corsets on health grounds and adopt dress reform.  The Association sought to pioneer a movement which necessitated a change of style in the dress of American women.   In July 1866 she was arrested in New York for the crime of impersonating a man.  The Dundee Courier & Argus reported the incident:

Miss Dr Mary E. Walker who indulges in the Bloomer costume, appeared one day in Broadway with a very long train of boys.  A policeman arrested her, and took her before the justice in question, on charge of being dressed in the attire of a man.  It was alleged that the crowd which followed Dr Mary sufficiently proved that no deception was attempted with regard to her sex.  A lawyer of the Police Court declared that “any man or woman who should dress in a way that would attract attention was violating the law.”  To this it was replied triumphantly that the great majority of New Yorker’s dressed for the purpose of attracting attention.  We say triumphantly, for the justice decided that no case was made out against the fair physician, who thereupon returned to Broadway, where she has since appeared in her “Bloomer” at her pleasure.’

Mary always wore male dress and even in her final years, she could be seen about town wearing a wing collar, bow tie, top hat and carrying  a cane.  She was awarded the Medal of Honor in November 1865 for her services at the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas).

To find out more about So.Sk.An.  Click here.

Surgical instruments from The American Civil War, owned by members of So.Sk.An.

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