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Mary Walker's Quest to be Appointed as a Union Doctor in the Civil War

Alexis Coe tells the story of an abolitionist surgeon eager to serve in what she was convinced would become a “war of liberation”. Denied a commission in the Union army, she took to dressing as a man, working without pay alongside less-qualified male doctors.

By 1861, the Sanitary Commission recommended amputations be conducted when a limb had serious lacerations or compound fractures, but the practice was controversial, with disconcerting mortality rates: Nearly 60 percent of leg amputations done at the knee resulted in death, while less than 20 percent survived hip-level amputations. Walker observed her colleagues senselessly amputating for want of practice. She wrote, “It was the last case that would ever occur if it was in my power to prevent such cruel loss of limbs.” She began double-checking their work, surreptitiously counseling soldiers against the surgery when appropriate. Many wrote her thankful letters after the war, reporting their limbs to be fully functional.

Great story, and the money quote is here:

The [New York] Tribune continued to criticize the military’s reluctance to recognize her efforts, asking “What ‘ism’ is more absurd than Conservatism? If a woman is proved competent for duty, and anxious to perform it, why restrain her?”