Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Phoebe Yates Pember: "The Matron of Chimborazo" (1823-1913)

Written by Cassie A. Barrow, Nash Farm Battlefield Museum

Phoebe Yates Levy Pember was one of the first women to serve as a hospital administrator during the Civil War. Her memoirs describe in vivid detail the difficulties encountered by one of the first women to enter the previously all-male field of nursing.

Born on Aug. 18, 1823, Phoebe was the fourth of six daughters of a prosperous Jewish family in Charleston, S.C. At age 27, she married Thomas Pember of Boston, and the couple moved back to the South upon Thomas contracting tuberculosis, in hopes to help his illness. On July 9, 1861, Thomas died from his infection, and Phoebe rejoined her family, who had relocated from Savannah to Marietta, Ga. Soon after, Phoebe moved to Richmond, Va., to help in the war efforts.

The Confederate States of America passed the "Matron Law" in September 1862, which permitted able-bodied men to be on the battlefields and doctors to tend to patients. The administrative control of hospitals could then be given to women and non-physicians. Phoebe soon received an offer to serve as matron of the Chimborazo Military Hospital in Richmond, at that time, the largest military hospital in the world. It is said that although Phoebe had no professional medical training, caring for her husband through years of illness qualified her for hospital work. On Dec. 1, 1862, Phoebe reported for duty as chief matron of Chimborazo’s Second Division, one of five hospital divisions. There, she would remain until the end of the war and beyond.

Working in the hospital, Phoebe dealt with not only the pain and suffering of her patients, but also with shortages of medicine, food and equipment. In addition, she dealt with doctors and a society that criticized women working in a hospital setting. Her response was dignified, "In the midst of suffering and death, hoping with those almost beyond hope in this world; praying by the bedside of the lonely and heart stricken; closing the eyes of the boys hardly old enough to realize man’s sorrows, much less suffer man’s fierce hate, a woman must soar beyond the conventional modesty considered correct under different circumstances."

A total of 76,000 patients were at Chimborazo by the end of the Civil War, and an estimated 15,000 soldiers were under the supervision of Phoebe in the 150 wards she managed. Phoebe remained at Chimborazo until the Confederate surrender in April 1865, staying with her patients after the fall of Richmond and until the facility was taken over by Federal authorities.

When her responsibilities in Richmond were completed, Phoebe returned to Savannah, where she maintained her elite social status, and traveled in the United States and Europe. In 1879, Phoebe’s memoirs “A Southern Woman’s Story: Life in Confederate Richmond” was published. It is considered a pioneering piece in women’s history.

She died on March 4, 1913, at age 89, in Pittsburgh, and is buried in Laurel Grove Cemetery in Savannah, where an obelisk was erected in her memory. As an added tribute to her, the U.S. Postal Service in 1995 placed her portrait on a sheet of 20 stamps commemorating important persons and events during the Civil War. In 2009, Georgia also honored Phoebe in the annual Confederate History Month Proclamation.



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