Mary Ann Bickerdyke was married to Robert Bickerdyke, and English widower with three children, who worked as a sign painter and amateur musician. Robert played at a Jenny Lind concert.
Before the war, she had received training in botanic and homeopathic medicine and had been engaged in private-duty nursing.
Recently bereaved by the untimely death of both her husband and young daughter, she felt divinely called to spend her remaining life relieving human suffering.
On a Sunday in June 1861, Bickerdyke listened as her pastor, Edward Beecher, brother of homeopathic supporters Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, told of the need for volunteer help in the military camps in nearby Cairo, Ill. When the congregation asked her to accompany a load of food, clothing and medical supplies to Cairo on behalf of the church, she was ready. Except for short visits, that was the last her two young sons saw of her until the end of the war. continue reading:
Bickerdke was also friendly with homeopathic supporter Mary A Livermore, who helped Bickerdyke’s two young sons to find a suitable position. Bickerdyke trained homeopath Mary Jane Safford in war nursing techniques, and in February 1862 Safford and Bickerdyke helped transport wounded from Fort Donelson to Cairo.
Bickerdyke insisted on clean comfortable hospitals, despite the insects and vermin that ran everywhere at the time, and she also insisted on clean hotels and boarding houses, so women could travel to the West.
The most serious threat to “traditional” medicine was homeopathy, which had impeccable medical credentials and a sophisticated theory behind it…. Homeopathy was simple to explain and logically consistent; it shared terminology and training with orthodox medicine and made use of all the advances of chemistry, physiology, and instrumentation available to other physicians.
In most communities its practitioners were accorded equal status with the allopaths (“traditional” doctors). The introduction of homeopathy touched off a “medical reform” movement that included many new disciplines which were far more favorably disposed toward female practitioners than was the establishment.
As early as the 1830’s the homeopaths and their various kindred disciplines accepted female students and conferred degrees upon them. More than one woman trained under a doctor of one of these theories, obtained a title such as Doctor of Botanic Medicine, and set up practise in some little country town. What she did wasn’t so different from the work of a visiting nurse a century or so later: go into a home, open the windows, bathe the patient, keep a sharp eye on the diet, administer herbal cures of a kind familiar to pioneer women from the earliest days, and lecture the family on the need for cleanliness and fresh air.
Her fees would be modest, but she could live on them, perhaps with help from a father or uncle, or a little farm or other investment to provide a backlog. Country people respected the independence of such a woman and valued her advice all the more highly for its modest cost.
One of the best-known disciplines of the type was the Physio-Botanic System, which avoided bloodletting, blistering, and drugs such as opium and calomel in favor of fresh air, cleanliness, frequent hot baths, the inhalation of steam, prolonged application of wet dressings, copious use of herbal teas, emesis and enemas, a carefully chosen diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, plenty of impressive-looking pills that were really no worse than mild purgatives, frankness as to the nature of the complaint, and reassurance about “the proper means of relief and future avoidance.”
Its vogue was strongest in the Midwest, centering on Cincinnati, where “Mother” Mary Ann Bickerdyke, later to gain fame as “the bulldog of the Sanitary Commission,” studied it. It was easily learned, and required no preliminary stint at “reading medicine,” though it was considered outrageous and radical by orthodox doctors. It was also inexpensive for the patient: the wife of an Ohio Valley brewing magnate could be properly ill in a hermetically sealed room, soothed with laudanum, purged with calomel, and scientifically bled by a frock-coated, silk-hatted orthodox physician; the river boatman’s wife had to content herself with a fifty-cent-a-visit botanic whose advice was probably the better of the two.
It enjoyed great popularity because of its success in treating fever, cholera, and yellow fever. Early in her career Bickerdyke encountered a localized outbreak of smallpox, of which her biographer, Nina Brown Baker, says: Medical science knew no treatment for [it]. Once a victim contracted it, there was nothing to do but isolate him to keep him from infecting others. He got well or he died.
Most communities had a building that was used as a pesthouse, and there the sufferers were taken. Food and water were left outside the door; the patients themselves could distribute it. When enough had died to make the effort worthwhile, men could be sent to bury the bodies. Meanwhile, not even a doctor would visit the place.
Bickerdyke rounded up a corps of working-class helpers who had once had smallpox and were immune to it…had the dead removed, the filthy bedding burned; then she proceeded to clean up the place…scrubbed the floors, whitewashed the walls, filled in the old outhouse and dug a new one. The patients were bathed, put to bed in clean clothes on clean bedding, dosed with black root and goldenseal, sassafrass tea and beet juice, and fed all the milk and fresh vegetables they would take. A surprisingly large number of them recovered. continue reading:
In the early period of her service, Bickerdyke held no authority other than semiofficial status granted occasionally by Union Army officers. Her manner, however, was so forthright and compelling that she was rarely questioned. When one surgeon dared to ask where she received permission to do what she was doing, Bickerdyke retorted she was given orders by “the Lord God Almighty. Have you anything that ranks higher than that?” Later, she was named a Sanitary Commission agent.
In spite of her brusque and aggressive behavior, Bickerdyke gained the friendship of a few high-ranking officers, among them (homeopathic supporter) General Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. Toward the end of the war, when someone complained about Bickerdyke to Sherman, he commented that she was the only person around who outranked him, and he suggested the complainer refer the matter to (another homeopathic supporter) President Abraham Lincoln.
On one occasion, when she was besieging Sherman at an inopportune moment, the oft-prickly general asked whether she had ever heard of insubordination. Bickerdyke responded in an equally testy manner: “You bet I’ve heard of it….It’s the only way I ever get anything done in this army.”
Major General John “Black Jack” Logan also crossed paths with Bickerdyke, meeting her for the first time late one night after a battle. While lying in his tent, he observed a lone figure with a lamp crisscrossing the battlefield and sent an orderly to bring the person in for questioning. Bickerdyke explained that she could not rest until she was satisfied that no living man remained on the field. After that incident, Logan often confided in her, called on her to provide for his men, and ordered her to ride at his side at the Union’s gala victory parade in Washington after the Confederate surrender.