Role of Elizabeth Blackwell in the Civil War

Instructor: Erica Cummings

Erica teaches college Humanities, Literature, and Writing classes and has a Master's degree in Humanities.

Being a Civil War soldier was dangerous, not just because of battles but also due to the diseases soldiers could contract in military camps. This lesson discusses the actions of one woman who sought to improve this situation for soldiers!

Improving Battlefield Medical Care

Shockingly, roughly two-thirds of the Civil War's 600,000 or more fatalities were caused by disease. This is not surprising, however, given that the sanitary conditions in the military camps were less than spectacular. Limbs were amputated and bullets were removed using unsterile instruments. Military surgeons would often move from one wounded soldier to the next without even washing their hands. Battlefield nurses were usually untrained. Clearly, the soldiers needed more than just ammunition and rifles to protect themselves during war time.

Civil War wounded
Civil War wounded

Elizabeth Blackwell tried to change this dire situation. Blackwell, who was in fact the first woman ever to earn a medical degree, used her medical knowledge to support the Union's Civil War effort. She helped standardize hygiene practices and also recruited and trained numerous female battle nurses. Though battlefield medical care still had a long way to go, Blackwell helped provide better medical services to wounded soldiers.

The Life of Elizabeth Blackwell

A female doctor was a rarity in the 1860s. In fact, a woman being a doctor was absolutely unheard of before Elizabeth Blackwell came around. Blackwell was born in 1821 to a family of social activists who supported abolition and women's rights. So it's not surprising that Elizabeth decided she wanted to become a doctor.

Blackwell's family fully supported her efforts, but American culture in the mid-1800s was not as encouraging. Her medical school applications were met with confusion, mockery, and sometimes disgust. 'Medicine is no place for a woman!' she was told. However, despite the ridicule and rejection letters, Blackwell pressed on.

In 1847, Blackwell was finally admitted to a medical school in New York. She graduated in 1849 as the first woman in the world to earn a medical degree. It took time for society to accept that a woman could be a doctor, but Blackwell gradually earned a reputation as a skilled physician.

Elizabeth Blackwell
Elizabeth Blackwell

War Breaks Out

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Blackwell wanted to use her medical knowledge to improve battlefield conditions. She staunchly supported the North, in large part because she was an abolitionist. Blackwell wanted to assist in the war effort, and given her medical knowledge, felt she could be a great asset to the Union cause.

In 1861, Blackwell recruited 4,000 women to form the Women's Central Association of Relief (WCAR) in New York. Blackwell's hope was that the WCAR could become a national network of trained nurses and volunteers who could care for the wounded. But once again, Blackwell encountered resistance. Military officials were not quite ready to hand over the relief effort to a woman's organization.

The WCAR never became the national, female-led relief organization Blackwell wanted it to be, but it did make an impact. Blackwell worked with her sister and another female medical pioneer, Dorothea Dix, to train countless nurses who could then be sent to the front lines.

Up to that point, battlefield nurses were usually untrained, and often unwittingly spread diseases to the very soldiers they were trying to heal. With Blackwell's and Dix's training, though, these nurses learned in-depth medical knowledge as well as proper sanitation and hygiene techniques. This undoubtedly cut down on the spread of disease in army camps and hospitals. Battlefield sanitation still had a long way to go, even after the creation of the WCAR, but Blackwell's emphasis on hygiene and sanitation helped shift battlefield medical care in the right direction.

Civil War nurse
Civil War nurse

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