Before the Civil War, the majority of hospital nurses – or “stewards” – were men. But the war created a medical crisis that called for more volunteers, and many of the people who answered the call were women.
Of the estimated 620,000 military deaths during the civil war, about two-thirds were due to the disease. If a bullet did not kill a soldier, the infection that developed from a wound could do so; and infectious diseases that spread in war hospitals have ravaged soldiers and medical personnel. Amid this desperate need for medical personnel, women began to volunteer as nurses for wounded soldiers. After the war, women continued to work in medicine; and in 1900, they made up 91 percent of American nurses.
Women volunteers as nurses
When the Civil War began in 1861, medical jobs were not yet professionalized as they are today, says Stanley Burns, surgeon, historian and founder of The Burns Archive.
“Surgery was not part of medical training for a lot of people,” he says. To become a doctor, “the only requirement was an apprenticeship with a doctor and some lessons.” Many of the people who volunteered as surgeons during the Civil War basically learned how to operate on the job.
Likewise, there was no compulsory training for nurses who volunteered in war hospitals; most of their training therefore also took place on the job. Although the Union and Confederate military medical departments preferred to use men in war hospitals, the need for more nurses became evident in the early months of the war. Many of the men who ended up working as nurses in these hospitals were in fact wounded soldiers who had been asked to help treat more wounded soldiers.
White women and free black women have sought to fill this need by volunteering as nurses, although they have had very different experiences. Free black women were frequently assigned to tasks considered more menial and often could only deal with black soldiers or other nurses. In Confederation, slave owners forced enslaved black women to serve as nurses, and then slave owners received compensation for the work.
Florence Nightingale, Dorothea Dix Shape Nursing
American nurses working during the Civil War may have heard of British nurse Florence Nightingale, who emphasized the benefits of training nurses during the Crimean War of the 1850s. She helped establish nursing in as a profession in Britain and influenced the way some Americans began to think about nursing during the Civil War.
In 1861, the US military appointed Dorothea Dix as the first superintendent of nurses. Dix set up a system for women to volunteer for three-month nursing assignments during the war. In addition to setting standards of care for nurses who volunteered in the military, she also helped shape the image of what a nurse should look like. To volunteer as a nurse in Dix, women had to be between the ages of 35 and 50, in good health and “simple in appearance.”
Another influential Civil War nurse was abolitionist Clara Barton, known as the “Battlefield Angel” and later founded the American Red Cross. In 1862, she took a grueling cart trip to deliver medical supplies to the war hospital near the Cedar Mountain battlefield in Virginia.
“Five days and nights with three hours of sleep – one narrow escape from capture – and a few days to get the wounded to Washington hospitals,” she wrote of her trip. “And if you have the opportunity to feel that the positions I have held were harsh and improper for a women-I can only answer that they were rude and improper for Men. ”
Nursing is becoming professional and becoming feminine
Thousands of women served as nurses during the Civil War, which served as a catalyst for more women to enter the field. Like other medical jobs, nursing became more professional and specialized at the end of the 19th century. In 1873, the Bellevue Hospital in New York opened the first American nursing school based on the standards developed by Florence Nightingale. That year, hospitals in New Haven and Boston opened similar schools.
However, this professionalization has also created a gendered hierarchy in salaries and prestige. By the turn of the century, men made up the majority of physicians and surgeons, while more and more women held lower-paying nursing jobs, seen as less prestigious.
Today, nursing is the largest health profession in the United States. Although more men have entered the field in the 21st century, women still form the majority, accounting for 91 percent of nurses.
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