Women in Medicine: Doctor in the Civil War Era
Mary Jane Safford was born in Hyde Park, Vermont, but her family moved to Crete, Illinois, when she was three years old. Her parents died, and in 1849, family members sent her to an academy in Bakersfield, Vermont, then allowed her to travel in Canada to learn French and to act as governess to a German-speaking family so she could learn German.
During the 1850s, she taught school while living with her older brother in Joliet, Shawneetown, then Cairo, Illinois. Mary Jane's birth date is not known, but she was about 29 years old when the Civil War began.
In the spring of 1861, volunteer soldiers descended upon the town, setting up camps along the river banks. Diseases soon spread among the troops, and Mary Jane began to nurse the sick soldiers and took them food from her own kitchen.
Cairo, at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, was strategically important because the rivers were the primary means of transportation. The Cairo area became the site of several military hospitals.
When hospital matron Mary Ann Bickerdyke arrived in Cairo, she and Mary Jane began requisitioning supplies and setting up hospitals. Although she was small and frail, Mary Jane lived up to Bickerdyke's strict standards, and soon began working as a full-time nurse.
Though she was based at the large field hospital in Cairo, Mary Jane often left to care for the sick in surrounding camps. Bickerdyke later wrote that after the Battle of Fort Donelson Mary Jane worked 10 days in the Cairo hospitals with little sleep.
Then she volunteered to work aboard the Union ship City of Memphis as they brought the wounded off the battlefield back to the regimental hospitals. During the battle of Belmont, she treated the wounded on the battlefield with a white handkerchief tied to a stick as a flag of truce.
Mary Jane made five subsequent trips before collapsing from exhaustion. She went to her brother's home to rest, but returned to her duties just before the Battle of Shiloh, working aboard the transport boat Hazel Dell and with Bickerdyke in Savannah, Tennessee field hospitals. She impressed her patients and won the name Angel of Cairo.
But after caring for the Shiloh wounded, Mary Jane suffered a complete breakdown and was confined to her bed for several months. At her brother's urging, she accompanied the family of former Illinois governor Joel Matteson on a lengthy European vacation to recuperate.
While in Europe, she visited hospitals and decided to become a physician. When she returned to the U.S. in the autumn of 1866, she enrolled in the New York Medical College for Women and graduated in 1869.
She received advanced training in Europe for three years, studied surgery at the General Hospital of Vienna, Austria, continued her studies at the University of Breslau, Germany, performing the first ovariotomy ever done by a woman.
Dr. Safford finally returned to America late in 1872, and set up practice in Chicago. In 1872, she married James Blake, and moved her practice to Boston. When the marriage failed, she divorced Blake in 1880 and reverted to her maiden name.
She then joined the Boston University School of Medicine faculty as Professor of Women's Diseases. In 1878, she was appointed Professor of Gynecology there, and remained in that position she was forced to retire in poor health in 1886.
Dr. Mary Jane Safford died at her brother's home in Tarpon Springs, Florida, in 1891, after a very productive life.