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No. 867:
Hannah Ropes

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 created them.

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 work.

(Theme music)

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 Brothers, 1889.

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 Company, 1954.