“The Folly… Of Silly Women”: Women And The Development Of Modern Medicine In America During The Civil War

Sarah Gaylen Chamness


Scholarship on Civil War medicine has traditionally focused on the incompetent practice and limited knowledge of the medical professionals at the time, which resulted in a horrific number of casualties. Such work has led to 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, published in 2014, historian Shauna Devine argues effectively 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 medicine in America through the efforts of individuals such as U.S. Surgeon General William A. Hammond. But as important a correction of previous scholarly consensus as Devine’s argument is, is Devine right to focus as heavily as she does on the achievements of male Northern doctors? This paper argues that, contrary to this male-centered vision of modern medical development in America, women provided a massive intellectual contribution to the shift in medical thinking that occurred during this time. It was women who were the driving force behind the creation of the United States Sanitary Commission, an organization that advocated for many of the important policy changes that aided modern 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.


Women; Civil War; Shauna Devine

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