Women in medicine include untrained nurses, religious sisters devoted to the healing arts, pioneers in the emerging nursing profession and female physicians who were trained in this country and abroad.
Women had always taken charge of the sick in the home. Their outside interests included religious and charity work, which at that time was the only way to assist those who were sick and unable to care for themselves. 19th century medicine, among the poor, was often charity work as the scientific advances necessitating hospital care were yet to come.
The Civil War was a pivotal event in American society. One of its lesser known impacts was in enlarging women's sphere of influence into the public sector. Women became important in the various philanthropic institutions of the day. 30% of Civil War deaths were from disease, with typhoid fever causing the most deaths. Such diseases and wounds were overwhelming the regular army's ability to care for its men. It was only natural that they would turn to women for help. There were approximately 7,000 untrained, male, female, and religious order nurses in the Civil War.
After the war, there were large numbers of poor, disabled soldiers, displaced families, widows and orphans. These people often needed care and the number of hospitals in the United States went from 100 in 1861, to over 6,000 by 1911. Nursing care was the product of the hospital and therefore training nurses became a cheap way to care for the patients. Mary Wheeler devoted her life to improving both patient care and the education of nurses.
Throughout the 19th century, women had little economic or political power. They could marry and stay within the home or enter into a religious vocation, education or nursing. Women would seek a career if they had financial reversals, or had been left with no support by a husband or father. Few were of independent means such as Louisa Maertz or Melinda Germann. If they had to work, they entered into nursing rather than medicine. Physicians, who were attempting to turn medicine into a profession, didn't want women. Physicians were interested in controlling status, income, market share, and later, education. Most medical schools, such as Quincy Medical College, were proprietary. Training of physicians didn't really enter the universities until late in the 19th century. Physicians who wanted scholarly training went abroad. Strong, confident women had to overcome significant obstacles to work in nursing or practice medicine.
Photograph of montage, courtesy of Quincy Public Library, Quincy, Illinois