Sunday, October 19, 2014

Portrait of a Nurse: A Wartime Role for Women


The large and prosperous Akin family had lived in the Quaker Hill community north of New York City for generations. The eighth of Judge Albro Akin’s ten children, Amanda was thirty-five when she left to join the Union cause in April 1863. She returned home after serving at Armory Square Hospital, and few details of the rest of her life are known.

Akin married Dr. Charles W. Stearns in 1879, was widowed in 1887, and apparently had no children. In 1909, at age eighty-one, she published an account of her nursing experience, The Lady Nurse of Ward E, under her married name of Amanda Akin Stearns. She died in February 1911 and is buried with her husband in Pawling, New York.

“My Dear Sisters: You are no doubt anxiously looking for a ‘sign of life’ from me, but I can tell you initiation into hospital life of such a novice is not lightly to be spoken of, and until my ideas ceased floundering and I could recognize my old self again, I could not trust myself with a pen”
—Amanda Akin, 1863

With no specialized medical training or preparation, Amanda Akin arrived at Armory Square Hospital on an April evening in 1863 to begin work. Nursing was not yet established as a profession, and most men and women who took on these roles were expected to learn as they went about their daily activities.

Female nurses were newcomers to military hospitals. Convalescent soldiers continued to fill most of the nursing positions, especially in field hospitals and in camp, where conditions were considered unsuitable for women. At Armory Square Hospital the female nurses shared their duties with male “attendants.”

During the war, the title of “nurse” was often reserved for white middle- and upper-class women. However, along with these “lady nurses,” as they were known, others from diverse backgrounds working as matrons, cooks, laundresses, or without title performed many of the same tasks.

“We pass up and down among these rough men without fear of the slightest word of disrespect. They feel their dependence upon us for comfort and entertainment, and the difference in the wards where there is no ‘lady’ shows how much can be done for them.”
—Amanda Akin, 1863

Image: Amanda Akin, April 1863
This photograph was taken at the time Akin set off to Washington, D.C., to become a nurse. She included it in her published book.


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