Episode 39 American Civil War Medicine: A Woman’s Battlefield

Throughout history, times of war bring change to medicine. It’s a hard truth, but it is the truth. And in American history, no war was more brutal than the Civil War. Of the thousands of people who died during this four-year war, ⅔ died from the disease. The conditions of the war gave an opportunity for medicine to grow, and for women to step into the field. Join us in this episode to talk about the fearless female nurses and physicians of the American Civil War, because their names deserve to go down in history too.

Feminist Corner:

  • What about large historical events (whether a war, pandemic, or whatever) give women and people often left behind new opportunities?

Listen to the episode, discuss these questions with friends and family, let us know what you think!

Show Notes:

Talking about war is always tricky because war is a frustrating entity and the unthinkable number of death is heartbreaking. But, medical advancements often come from times of war, especially in history. And it is essential to understand how the people of the past, whether they were amazing, horrible, or in pain, are still a part of society today through their imprint on the world. So with that, let’s talk about the American Civil War. 

Quick Civil War facts: 

  • Lasted four years, from 1861 to 1865
  • The war was fought between the Union (the north) and the Confederacy (the south). The Confederacy was made up seven southern states who left the United States after Abraham Lincoln won the election on an anti-slavery platform in 1860
  • The bloodiest war in all of American History, with the deaths adding up to more than all other wars combined in the United States. And of those dead, ⅔ died of disease. 

Medical Advancements: 

  • Use of quinine for the prevention of malaria
  • Use of quarantine, which virtually eliminated yellow fever
  • Successful treatment of hospital gangrene with bromine and isolation
  • Development of an ambulance system for evacuation of the wounded
  • Use of trains and boats to transport patients
  • Establishment of large general hospitals
  • Creation of specialty hospitals
  • Safe use of anesthetics
  • Performance of rudimentary neurosurgery
  • Development of techniques for arterial ligation
  • Performance of the first plastic surgery

Physicians in the war: 

  • Dr. Rebbeca Lee Crumper, the first African American doctor in the united states who teamed up with other black physicians to care for the free slaves, who otherwise would have had little to no medical care
  • Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell and her sister Dr. Emily Blackwell helped organize over 4k women from NYC to collect blankets, food, clothing, and medical supplies for soldiers.
  • Dr. Mary Walker was a surgeon and the first and only woman to win the Medal of Honor. 

Nurses in the war:

  • The union thought ‘believing that they were inexperienced, incompetent, and disorganized” and the south thought it was very inappropriate for a woman to touch a man that she was not related
  • A woman by the name of Ann Bradford escaped slavery and boarded a Union military vessel during her escape, where she became the first female nurse in the US Navy. She worked personally with 4 other free women, who used medicine they learned from the plantations to treat soldiers.
  • Clara Barton was the Angel of the Battlefield and founder of the American Red Cross
  • By the end of the war, a nurse became known as a woman who aided doctors via cleaning, feeding patients, and assisting in medical treatment.


Adrienne, C. (2022, August 11). Women in Civil War changed the idea of who could be nurses. Time. Retrieved August 22, 2022, from https://time.com/6205016/civil-war-nursing-women-history/

Civil War Medicine: An overview of medicine. eHISTORY. (n.d.). Retrieved August 22, 2022, from https://ehistory.osu.edu/exhibitions/cwsurgeon/cwsurgeon/introduction

Civil War Women Doctors. History of American Women. (2013, April 22). Retrieved August 22, 2022, from https://www.womenhistoryblog.com/2013/04/civil-war-women-doctors.html

Clara Barton. About Clara Barton | Red Cross Founder | American Red Cross. (n.d.). Retrieved August 22, 2022, from https://www.redcross.org/about-us/who-we-are/history/clara-barton.html

Clara Barton. American Battlefield Trust. (n.d.). Retrieved August 22, 2022, from https://www.battlefields.org/learn/biographies/clara-barton

Little, B. (2021, November 1). How the US civil war inspired women to enter nursing. History.com. Retrieved August 22, 2022, from https://www.history.com/news/nursing-women-civil-war

Michals, E. by D. (n.d.). Clara Barton Biography. National Women’s History Museum. Retrieved August 22, 2022, from https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/clara-barton

Paige Gibbons Backus Paige Gibbons Backus is a public historian who has been in the field for close to ten years focusing on educational programming and operations at several historic house museums throughout Northern Virgin, disease. (2021, June 1). Female nurses during the Civil War. American Battlefield Trust. Retrieved August 22, 2022, from https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/female-nurses-during-civil-war

Public Broadcasting Service. (n.d.). Civil War Medical Practice. PBS. Retrieved August 22, 2022, from http://www.pbs.org/mercy-street/uncover-history/behind-lens/civil-war-medical-practice/

Reilly RF. Medical and surgical care during the American Civil War, 1861-1865. Proc (Bayl Univ Med Cent). 2016 Apr;29(2):138-42. doi: 10.1080/08998280.2016.11929390. PMID: 27034545; PMCID: PMC4790547.

Wikimedia Foundation. (2022, August 19). Clara Barton. Wikipedia. Retrieved August 22, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clara_Barton

Wikimedia Foundation. (2022, July 20). Medicine in the american Civil War. Wikipedia. Retrieved August 22, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medicine_in_the_American_Civil_War

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