This is the third in my Dr. Mary Walker Wednesdays series. Each week I’ll post the first sentence of a new chapter, along with an image (or two) that relates to material in the chapter. This week features Walker’s medical work in the nation’s capital. And since we’re all thinking a lot about containing the spread of disease, I’ve added some bonus content from the book that explains how Americans dealt with this during the Civil War.
Chapter Three: Volunteer Surgeon
Dismissed by the secretary of war, Dr. Mary Walker searched Washington, DC, for a position at one of the new military hospitals.
(both images from the Smithsonian Institution)
Dr. Walker volunteered her services at the Indiana Hospital, situated inside the US Patent Office Building. One of her primary responsibilities was to perform pre-admittance examinations of patients to make sure they did not have smallpox. “Patients were daily brought in ambulances to the west sidewalk of the Patent Office Building,” she later wrote. Dr. Green, the physician in charge, would send for her “to come down and examine the cases so that no cases of possible smallpox might be taken up there” to the hospital ward.
A viral infection, smallpox spread through face-to-face contact via coughing and sneezing. Fever and body aches were followed by a red rash in the mouth and on the tongue, culminating in a pustule rash on the rest of the body. Three out of every ten people who caught it usually died. A successful vaccination had been developed, but it was not widely used in the early 1800s. During the Civil War, desperate soldiers fashioned their own vaccine, taking pus from an afflicted compatriot and scratching it into their skin. Their limited knowledge made this a high-risk proposition.
Doctors like Mary Walker managed to contain smallpox during the war. Pure, unadulterated vaccines reached enough soldiers to prevent an epidemic, but not enough to eradicate the disease. Quarantine, the primary method Walker relied on, also helped to stem the contagion.
Next week’s entry will provide a glimpse of some of Mary Walker’s other wartime activities.
Stay safe and stay healthy.