Today, Hannah Ropes and Louisa May Alcott help
change military medicine. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Just after her 30th birthday
in 1862, Louisa May Alcott arrived at the Union
Hospital in Georgetown to work as a nurse. She was
just in time to meet the wounded pouring in from
the lost Battle of Fredricksburg.
Women nurses had been held in a class with
prostitutes only a decade before. Then Florence Nightingale brought
her powerful organizational skills to bear on
nursing. So now the Union Army began accepting
women whom they deemed to be "of good conduct" to
help cope with the slaughter.
In the wake of that Civil War experience, Alcott
wrote her first important work, Hospital Sketches.
She clearly admired her supervisor, a strong woman
named Hannah Ropes. Hannah Ropes had shown up as
the new matron of nurses just after her 53rd
birthday. And that was only five months before
Alcott came to work.
Ropes had flown her radical colors early in life.
Like Nightingale, her religious convictions were
both strong and radical. Like Alcott, she was
passionately opposed to slavery.
She entered a world where the wounded soldier was
treated with brutal indifference -- like so much
cord wood. She saw her role as being mother to
those poor wretches. Like a good mother, she took
off ruthlessly after the people in charge of the
system. And she knew women would have to carve out
a place in this male world. That would be the only
way we could -- in her words -- bring "the race up
into broader vantage ground."
When she got no help from the surgeon in charge of
the hospital, she went straight to Secretary of War
Stanton. Stanton listened. Then he fired the chief
surgeon. And so ran the reforms that would
eventually civilize military medical care.
For the last six months of her life, Hannah Ropes
dove into this ghastly charnel house and changed
it. Listen as her young apprentice, Alcott, tells
the flavor of it:
The sight of stretchers, each with its legless,
armless, or desperately wounded occupant,
admonished me that I was there to work, not to
wonder or to weep; so I corked my feelings.
Later she says,
The merciful magic of ether was not [used
today]. It's all very well to talk of the patience
of woman, but the endurance of these men, under
trials of the flesh ... their fortitude seemed
contagious, though I often longed to groan for
them, while the bed shook with the irrepressible
tremor of their tortured bodies.
In January, 1863, both women caught
typhoid pneumonia -- the major killer of wounded
soldiers. Alcott hovered between life and death while
she watched Ropes die of the disease. So ended both
their brief nursing careers. But not before they'd
moved in with the furious energy that only real
zealots bring to a task -- not before they'd helped
redefine what hospital care ought to be.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Brumgardt, J.R., Civil War Nurse: the Diary and
Letters of Hannah Ropes. Knoxville: The
University of Tennessee Press, 1980.
Alcott, L.M., Hospital Sketches.
(Bessie Z. Jones, ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 1960. (I've abridged the
quotations from this source that I've used above.)
Stern, M.B., Louisa May Alcott.
Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1950.
Cheney, E.D., Louisa May Alcott: Her Life,
Letters, and Journals. Boston: Roberts
Shields, E.A., Highlights in the History of
the Army Nurse Corps. Washington, D.C.: U.S.
Army Center of Military History, 1981.
Seymer, L.R., Selected Writings of Florence
Nightingale. New York: The Macmillan
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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