Abe Lincoln, How Could You? The Female Union Army Doctor Who Wasn’t
10:30 am, February 7th | by Sarah Devlin
We normally think of Abraham Lincoln as a bastion of progressiveness (however reluctant) and medicine as a field rife with hot male and female doctors hooking up (maybe that last thing is just my problem after spending nearly a decade with the nutjobs on Grey’s Anatomy), but we’re going to have to adjust our perceptions after reading this Atlantic piece on the female Union army doctor who was never given her proper due.
Mary Walker was an early women’s rights activist and ardent abolitionist, who closed down her practice when the war began, hoping to make herself useful to the Union army. Although several hundred women disguised themselves as men to fight in the Civil War, Walker wanted to be acknowledged for exactly what she was: a kick-ass female doctor.
From The Atlantic:
Walker was determined to be a useful patriot, and her services were readily accepted by Dr. J.N. Green, the lone surgeon of the Indiana Hospital, a makeshift infirmary hastily set up inside the unfinished U.S. Patent Office. Eager for Walker to be compensated, Green requested that Surgeon General Clement A. Finley formally appoint her assistant surgeon, which he refused. Entangled in a long divorce with a philandering husband who impregnated at least two patients, Walker was not a woman of means, yet she returned to work, politely refusing to share Green’s salary.
Indiana Hospital soon received additional doctors, but Walker did not hold them in high esteem….Walker observed her colleagues senselessly amputating for want of practice. She wrote, “It was the last case that would ever occur if it was in my power to prevent such cruel loss of limbs.” She began double-checking their work, surreptitiously counseling soldiers against the surgery when appropriate. Many wrote her thankful letters after the war, reporting their limbs to be fully functional.
Word quickly spread throughout what Walt Whitman called the “mad, wild, hellish” wartime capital: Dr. Mary Walker was a friend to soldiers. Knowing she was bold and skilled, anxious families begged her to seek out their injured sons, brothers and husbands, marooned near raging battles.
All this, and yet check out the shade from ‘ol Abe when Walker petitioned for an official post:
The Medical Department of the army is an organized system in the hands of men supposed to be learned in that profession and I am sure it would injure the service for me, with strong had, to thrust among them anyone, male or female, against their consent.
But the army would continue to accept her FREE LABOR until the muscular atrophy she developed as a POW captured by the Confederate army forced her to cease her work with them. The whole piece is absolutely worth a read, although it’s a depressing reminder of how often women’s services and work are cheerfully accepted but official acknowledgment of them is deemed a bridge too far. It reminds us a bit of today’s controversy over the lifting of the ban on women serving on the front lines, even though many female soldiers have been in combat all along.