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VIII. Civil War Nurses
Female nurses were a most uncommon sight in American medicine prior to the Civil War. Men performed most of the duties we commonly associate with nurses. Florence Nightingale and her Corps of Female Nurses, who were employed by the British during the Crimean War in the 1850s, had fired the imaginations of American women, however, many of whom eagerly volunteered their services to the Union Army Medical Corps.
IX. Dorothea Dix
A flood of applications by women to work as volunteer nurses in Union Army hospitals brought about the appointment of Miss Dorothea Dix, who was already well-known for her pre-war work in the reform of insane asylums, as Superintendent of Female Nurses by the Director of the Union Army Medical Corps in 1861.
Miss Dix decreed that volunteer female nurses should be “plain-looking, mature” women who had to dress in simple brown or black dresses. They were not to wear bows or jewelry, have curls in their hair, or wear hoops in their skirts.
X. Appearance of Female Nurses
Most women greatly disliked Miss Dix’s strictures on age, appearance, and dress, and many violations of her rules occurred. One volunteer female nurse noted that “never before have so many American women attempted to appear older than their natural years.” Attractive women did what they could to disguise their looks until appointed, then reverted to their normal appearances.
Many women “felt naked” without the hoop skirts then in fashion, and wore them in spite of Miss Dix’s prohibition. In at least one documented case, a hoop skirt caught in a soldier’s surgical dressing and opened the wound, causing his death due to hemorraging.
Tom Pearson, Reference Librarian
Special Collections Department
St. Louis Public Library
1301 Olive Street
St. Louis, MO 63103