Civil War Gallows Humor

For a change of pace, Catherine Lawrence I wanted to share a very funny and touching exchange between one of the most famous nurses of the Civil War, Lawrence and some of the physicians she worked with. It is once of my favorites I use often in teaching.

From the autobiography of Miss Catherine S. Lawrence available for free.Her grave is here. This excerpt if from pages 103-105.

Ms. Lawrence tells a story of good-natured kidding between doctors and herself. It shows a very different style of challenging doctors than the overly personalized and defensive manner on #MercyStreetPBS. From her book:

One Sunday morning a night nurse came into my ward  in great haste, saying Sands, our cook, wanted to see me he had the small-pox and they were going to take him to the Kalarama  Hospital. I went to his room and found him in bed with a comfortable over his head and that on a very warm day. I uncovered his face. “Why, Sands, you have the measles. Your  face is covered with them.” Just then in came the head doctor and another doctor, a visitor.  I said, “Do you call this the small-pox?”  “Certainly I do, nurse.”  Both agreed upon small-pox. “I call it a case of measles, “ said I four doctors against one nurse.  Now if this proves to be a case of small-pox you may hang me sure.” “Well,”  said Dr. B. if it turns out to be measles, then what?” “Well, of course you four gentlemen must abide by what is right, that is, you must be hung.” All passed off pleasantly but Sands must go to  Kalarama  Hospital. I wrote a note to the head nurse to have a room by himself as he had the measles…Lawrence will not give up the ship, neither will she be hung, sure of that in this case.

She goes on the explain how she was looking forward to having some amusement with the physicians she was working with.  One of the physicians became ill and in her words she attended to him and took the approach of “killing him with kindness”. Serving him breakfast in bed her autobiography declares “The hatchet was buried”. She continues to describe a later conversation showing a very mature, good natured,  exchange that continued among colleagues on this matter. p. 105.

This exchange is a rare treat in which nurses and physicians work as equals. Women were just barely finding their voice in the Civil War. This is especially true of the Southern women. But there were examples of mutual respect reported and here is one.

More information on diseases and the civil war


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