Mother Bickerdyke: A Nurse Among Generals

Mary Ann "Mother Bickedyke" PlaqueDuring the early 1860’s Florence Nightingale was getting the world’s first professional nursing school started in London. In the United States, in 1861, Dorothea Dix was appointed Superintendent of the Union Nurses serving in the Civil War. Ms. Dix set strict standards for her nurses to overcome social stigmas surrounding the presence of women in military camps.

In the Civil War’s earliest days, women who volunteered as care givers were viewed no differently from “camp followers” These camp followers included mistresses, wives and prostitutes who followed soldiers around the country. It was not considered “respectable” for women to be in or around military camps and hospitals.

Some women had the courage and common sense to defy decorum. Among those women was Mary Ann Ball Bickerdyke.  Bickerdyke was described as determined nurse who did not let anyone stand in the way of her duties. Her soldier patients came to refer to her as “Mother” Bickerdyke.

Mother BickerdykeWhen a SURGEON questioned her authority to take a particular action, she replied, “On the authority of Lord God Almighty, have you anything that outranks that?”

By the end of the war, Mother Bickerdyke was instrumental in establishing 300 hospitals. To put her work in perspective, at the beginning of the war, there were only about 150 hospitals in the entire country. She personally aided the wounded on 19 battlefields.

William_Tecumseh_Sherman“Mother” Bickerdyke was so loved the soldiers would cheer when she appeared. At the end of the War, during a Grand Review of the Armies in Washington, she rode with the officers and generals, with General William “Tecumseh” Sherman remarking: “She outranks me.”

Thanks to women like Mother Bickedyke, the Civil War would lead to greater respect for nurses. Congress would belatedly acknowledge the contribution of these women in 1892, when it FINALLY passed a bill providing pensions to Civil War nurses. The war began the movement of the nursing profession from the home to the hospital and clinic.

The result was an explosion of nursing schools in the late nineteenth century. These schools were closely associated with hospitals, and nurses—all of whom were assumed to be female—lived and worked at the hospital.  Women like Mary Ann Bickerdyke brought professionalism in nursing to military camps and hospitals, and that would be carried into the private sector.

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  1. […] battlefields or the hospitals near them, like the stories of Florence Nightingale, Dorothea Dix or Mary Ann Bickerdyke.  Her work to professionalize nursing was in the political arena. Their success is astonishing […]

  2. […] nursing to progress professionally in the states thanks to the groundbreaking work of women like Mary Ann Bickerdyke, Dorothea Dix and Anna […]