Literature Annotations

Alcott, Louisa May
Hospital Sketches

On-Line Text
Genre Novelette (91 pp.)
KeywordsDeath and Dying, Doctor-Patient Relationship, History of Medicine, Nursing, Professionalism, Racism, Society, Trauma, War and Medicine, Women in Medicine

Alcott briefly served as a nurse during the Civil War. These three brief "sketches" recount her experiences, though she gives herself a pseudonym and presumably embellishes her tale. The first sketch recounts her decision to become a nurse and her journey from Massachusetts to Washington, D.C. Despite her support of female equality, she finds her tasks go more smoothly when gentlemen help her.

The second sketch describes her job at the hospital. When the wounded are brought in, it is her duty to help wash and feed them, assist the doctors, and cheer the men up. She calls the men her "boys" and treats them maternally. In the third sketch, she falls ill herself and is brought home by her father.

In a postscript, she talks a bit more about the hospital. She criticizes its disorganized management and mocks the doctors, many of whom treat the patients as interesting problems to be solved rather than as people. Caring is left to the nurses. She mentions that she expected to be treated poorly by the doctors herself, but finds that they treat her well (though she also says they receive much better food and sleeping quarters). This section also contains lengthy reflections on the "Negroes" who help at the hospital.

CommentaryAlcott was part of a much-debated experiment on the part of the Army’s medical department. The department had not changed since the War of 1812 and many men died early in the Civil War due to inadequate facilities and skill. Guided by the experiences of Florence Nightingale and pressed by Dorothea Dix, the Army decided female nurses would help improve conditions. Many critics found such activity indecent for women or claimed they would spend their time fainting and flirting with the men. Alcott’s writing implicitly takes such views to task. This edition of the book has a lengthy introduction that describes the start of Army nursing in some detail.
PublisherHarvard Univ. Press
EditorsBessie Z. Jones
Place PublishedCambridge, Mass.
MiscellaneousFirst published: 1863
Annotated by Moore, Pamela and Coulehan, Jack
Date of Entry 08/08/94
Last Revised 08/29/06