By Alfred Jay Bollet, M.D.
It is unclear how many women were working as physicians in the United States before the Civil War. In the mid-1800s, medical students commonly learned from a preceptor without attending a formal medical school. At least one woman, Margaret Cannon Osborne, is known to have acquired her education in this manner and entered practice, and there may have been others like her. Also, many women learned medicine from their husbands or fathers in this fashion and then assisted in their practices. An unknown number of women attended medical school during this period dressed in male attire and went on to practice medicine pretending to be men.
While many male and female practitioners who graduated from unorthodox medical schools applied for admission to the Medical Corps of both armies, they were rejected. In desperation, a delegation of male homeopaths appealed directly to President Lincoln, but he would not support their application for army appointments.
Aside from Dr. Blackwell, at least two women who attended orthodox (allopathic) medical schools served as physicians during the war. Although some details of the career of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker (1832-1919) are vague, there is no doubt that she heroically served the Union cause. Born in Oswego, New York, she became a physician during the 1840s or 1850s, graduating from Syracuse Medical College at some point. She struggled in her attempts to practice medicine in Cincinnati, and, when the Civil War began, she was allowed to work in the Union army only as a nurse. In 1864, after three years as an army nurse, a regiment from Ohio hired her as a contract physician. As such, she was able to pass back and forth through the Union and Confederate lines. This allowed her to function as a spy, reporting her observations to Union officers. In October 1864, she received an army commission as an assistant surgeon and functioned in that official capacity until the war ended. Captured while treating a Confederate soldier on a battlefield, she spent four months in a Confederate prison.
While in the army, Dr. Walker wore the same military uniform as male physicians, but kept her hair long so that people would know that she was a woman. After the war, she continued to wear male attire and was active in women's rights movements. In 1897, she tried to establish a colony for women only, calling it "Adamless Eden." Her militancy caused most people, including her family, to shun her, and she died poor and alone in Oswego.
Her dangerous Civil War exploits led to her being awarded the Medal of Honor. However, after the criteria for awarding such medals were revised, the Board of Medals officially revoked the medal and asked her to return it. She reportedly said, "They can have it over my dead body." She died the next day, February 21, 1919. In 1977, the award was officially reinstated.
Dr. Esther Hill Hawks (1833-1906) was another army physician. After marrying Dr. John Milton Hawks, Esther Hill Hawks studied his medical books and decided to go to medical school. Graduating from New England Medical College for Women in 1857, she practiced in various locales with her husband. He was an ardent abolitionist, and, after Hilton Head and the surrounding areas were occupied by Union forces, he obtained a job providing medical care and running a plantation set up for freed slaves along the coast of South Carolina. Esther joined him there and helped provide medical care to the blacks. She also worked as a contract physician in General Hospital Number 10, which was established for black soldiers in Beaufort, South Carolina. Hawks helped care for soldiers from the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry after its famous ill-fated attempt to take Morris Island under Col. Robert Shaw. After the war, she continued to work in the area, caring for former slaves and teaching school.
Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman known to have received a regular medical degree in the United States. She was born in Bristol, England, but at the age of nine moved with her family to the United States, living first in New York City and then in Cincinnati. She taught school in Henderson, Kentucky, but, in 1844, she decided to study medicine. After being refused admission to many medical schools, she was finally accepted at Geneva (New York) Medical College in 1847. (The first medical school for women was established in 1850 in Philadelphia.)
When she received her M.D. degree in 1849, it provoked a great deal of press coverage in the United States and abroad; her biographers state that most people considered her "either mad or bad." Despite the negative attitude toward her in most of the press, the British humor magazine Punch commented on her graduation:
Young ladies all, of every clime,
Especially of Britain,
Who wholly occupy your time,
In novels or in knitting,
Whose highest skill is but to play,
Sing, dance, or French to clack well,
Reflect on the example, pray,
Of the excellent Miss Blackwell.
After Blackwell graduated, she was unable to find a hospital in the United States that would admit her for further training. She went to Paris, where she met with the leading physicians of the era, including Dr. Pierre Louis. None of them would accept a woman for training, and Louis advised her to enroll for midwife training. Taking his advice, she trained at La Maternité in Paris in 1849.
When Blackwell then received an appointment at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London, she received congratulations from Florence Nightingale, and they began a lifelong friendship. Blackwell encouraged Nightingale to enter nursing, even though her family strongly opposed such a move.
Blackwell returned to New York in 1850 and set up a private dispensary. Joined by her sister and Dr. Marie Zakrzewska (who had both obtained medical degrees at the Western Reserve University Medical School in Cleveland) and other women, she established the New York Infirmary for Women and Children on Bleeker Street in May 1857.
In 1868, they started the New York Medical College for Women at New York Infirmary. Blackwell insisted that it be staffed by women and have a curriculum and standards more demanding than most other medical schools at the time. It was financially supported by Quakers.
In 1869, Blackwell returned to England to campaign for the acceptance of women into the medical profession. She became the first woman ever admitted to the Medical Register of the United Kingdom and a professor at London School of Medicine for Women, which had just been founded. She remained on the faculty until 1907, when an accident enfeebled her. She was buried in England after she died in 1910.
From: Civil War Medicine: Challenges and Triumphs
©Galen Press, Ltd., Tucson, AZ, 2002