If Lousia May Alcott Were a Nurse: Oh Wait, She Was.

Peds Ward by JParadisi Acrylic,charcoal, flash & pencil on vellum 2008

     Nurses’ Week is over, but we left out one of my favorite nurses. She did not advance nursing science. Instead, she gave the profession a human face. I love Louisa May Alcott.

     She wrote Little Women. Do girls still read Little Women? I am grateful my mother considered reading the classic a rite of passage into womanhood (along with Gift from the Sea, and The Good Earth). She gave me a hardbound, illustrated copy of the novel for Christmas when I was in the fifth or sixth grade. To this day I do not know if I love Jo or Amy more. Beth scares me. Meg…she never really materialized for me.

     Okay, Little Women, blah, blah blah, yeah, you read it. You like Jo too. Amy was a bimbo. Too bad for Elizabeth. Meg went on to play the sister on Family Guy, who cares? Well, darling, do you know that Alcott borrowed books from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s private library? That neighbor Henry David Thoreau was her mentor. That she was an Abolitionist and Women’s Rights activist.  Do you know that before she became famous for penning Little Women in 1869, she was a nurse in the Civil War? The experience changed the course of her life, and likely shortened it. In 1863, she published her nursing experiences in the slender volume Hospital Sketches. The book has the tagline:  “An Army Nurse’s True Account of her Experiences during the Civil War.”  

     An aspiring actor and playwright, Alcott grew up in poverty.  Her father, Amos Bronson Alcott was a respected educator and philosopher lacking both business sense and money management skills. Louisa took jobs teaching and in domestic service to support her family. When war broke out among the United States, she wrote, “I want something to do.” Encouraged to write, young Alcott felt she lacked necessary life experiences. At a neighbor’s suggestion, she decided to “go nurse soldiers. So far, very good.”

     I won’t post a synopsis of the book, other than to say it contains a disturbing account of the death of a soldier whom Alcott befriended.  Her description illustrates that in the days before anesthesia, a soldier’s death was the male counterpart of a woman’s sufferings in childbirth.  

     Alcott was dedicated to the men in her charge. Her brief nursing career ended when she contracted typhoid fever. She survived, but suffered life-long chronic pain; a side effect of the mercury-based medication used to treat her. She obsessively turned to writing, becoming the main financial support of her entire family.  Little Women made her rich, but it was her nursing experiences that made her a writer. I will close this post with Alcott’s own words about Hospital Sketches:

These sketches, taken from letters hastily written in the few leisure moments of a very busy life, make no pretension to literary merit, but are simply a brief record of one person’s hospital experience. As such, they are republished, with their many faults but partially amended, lest in retouching they should lose whatever force or freshness the inspiration of the time may have given them.

To those who have objected to a “tone of levity” in some portions of the sketches, I desire to say that the wish to make the best of every thing, and send home cheerful reports even from that saddest of scenes, an army hospital, probably produced the impression of levity upon those who have never known the sharp contrasts of the tragic and comic in such a life.

The unexpected favor with which the little book was greeted, and the desire for a new edition, increase the author’s regret that is not more worthy such a kind reception.

Louisa May Alcott

Concord, March 1869

Hospital Sketches by Louisa May Alcott is available from Applewood Books.