Civil War Spotlight – Dorothea Dix

Posted: June 28, 2017 in Civil War Spotlight
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With the massive number of casualties, Civil War medicine became a critical part of the entire conflict. At the start of the conflict, the United States Army medical staff consisted of only eighty-seven men. By the end of the war, over eleven thousand doctors had served in the army.  Northern officials decided to enlist the help of female nurses in order to more effectively serve the medical needs caused by the war. President Lincoln appointed Dorothea Dix to serve as superintendent of women nurses in June 1861. 

Before the war, Dix had been an activist on behalf of mentally ill individuals. It was largely because of her efforts that the first mental hospitals were established. When Lincoln appointed her as the superintendent of nurses, she proved to be hard working and solely dedicated to the great tasks before her. Dix served in position throughout the war without accepting any pay. During her years of service, she managed a staff of over two thousand.

Dorothea Dix

(Photo Credit: Library of Congress)

Dix’s standards and rules for nurses were strict and unbending. She required her nurses to be at least thirty years old and plain in appearance. The dresses of the nurses had to be plain and drab looking. No brightly colored ribbons could be worn and nurses were forbidden to associate socially with the surgeons or patients. One eager volunteer wrote to Ms. Dix, “I am plain-looking enough to suit you, and old enough, I never had a husband and am not looking for one – will you take me?”

Though many found Dix’s methods unnecessarily strict, she was ultimately respected for her tireless work in overseeing the care of wounded soldiers. After the war, she was recognized for her service.

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