“The Folly… of Silly Women”: Women and the Development of Modern Medicine in America During the Civil War

Faculty Sponsor

David Western


Christ College


Christ College

Presentation Type

Oral Presentation

Symposium Date

Spring 4-23-2016


Scholarship on Civil War medicine has traditionally focused on the incompetency of the medical professionals at the time promoting a historical understanding of the Civil War as the sort of ‘Dark Ages’ of American medicine. However, recent scholarship suggests that this perception ignores significant strides in research and scientific thinking that took place during the time period. In her book Learning from the Wounded: The Civil War and the Rise of American Medicine, historian Shauna DeVine argues that the Civil War was not a medical dead-end but rather a catalyst for innovation that fundamentally altered medical practice. According to DeVine, the war led directly to the development of modern American medicine through the efforts of individuals like U.S. Surgeon General William A. Hammond. DeVine's book is an important correction of scholarly thought, but is she right to focus as heavily as she does on the achievements of male Northern doctors? This paper argues that women also provided a massive intellectual contribution to the shift in American medicine that occurred during this time. It was women who drove the creation of the United States Sanitary Commission, an organization that advocated for many of the policy changes that aided medical development during the Civil War. In addition, women pioneered many of the ideas that influenced such significant male figures as William Hammond. This paper will demonstrate that the contributions of women to the wartime development of modern American medicine were every bit as pivotal as those of men.

Biographical Information about Author(s)

Sarah Chamness is a sophomore nursing student. Looking for ways that her passions for medicine and history could intersect, she chose the Civil War as her freshman year Christ College seminar topic in order to study the diseases and doctors of that time period. She hopes to attend graduate school and continue research into various medical topics, with the ultimate goal of someday becoming a professor of nursing.

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