What We Can Learn From Walt Whitman, Nursing History, and Gender Roles

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Written by Morganne Skinner, BSN, RN Content Writer, IntelyCare
The background of Walt Whitman, nursing history, and gender roles in healthcare.

Close your eyes and imagine a nurse standing in front of you. What comes to mind? Did you envision a male or female nurse? More than likely, you envisioned a female. Today, women make up more than 75% of all full-time healthcare workers.

But did you know that before the Civil War most nurses were male? In fact, women weren’t allowed to be nurses initially because medical officers didn’t believe women had the necessary constitution for the hard work involved. As a result, there was a dire need for nurses and volunteers.

In comes Walt Whitman — a poet and journalist-turned-nurse. How did he become a nurse? What was his role during the Civil War? What can we learn from Walt Whitman, nursing history, and 19th century gender norms? We’ll answer these questions and more.

Who Is Walt Whitman?

Whitman was born in New York in 1819 to Walt Whitman (father, a housebuilder) and Louisa Van Velsor (mother, raised nine children). He developed an interest in writing and printers at the age of 12, and began teaching when he was 17 years old. He is a renowned queer poet and journalist, often referred to as the father of free verse.

He transitioned into a nursing career during the Civil War, where he wrote about his experiences volunteering in the army hospitals in Washington, D.C. He remained in the city for 11 years, working in the hospital daily until the war ended, and later took a job at the attorney general’s office.

Whitman had a stroke in 1873, leaving him partially paralyzed, although able to continue writing. He spent his final years in Camden, New Jersey, writing poetry and revising his popular poetry collection, Leaves of Grass. He died in 1892 from tuberculosis.

Walt Whitman: Nurse, Writer, Reporter

Whitman began his career as a writer, but when the Civil War hit, he traveled to the Army hospital to visit his brother who was injured. What was meant to be a couple-day trip turned into many years and a new nursing career that helped him become one of the most memorable nurses in history.

Walt Whitman as a Nurse

In 1863, Whitman received news that his brother was injured in the war and he traveled to visit him. Whitman had to visit 40 hospitals before he was able to find his brother, who was located in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He was relieved to have found his brother alive, though with a facial wound. Whitman saw the dire need for aid in the hospitals — from assisting doctors to helping patients eat to offering a listening ear.

At this time in history, there was no formal nursing training, so Whitman was able to jump right in and begin volunteering. Initially, male nurses outnumbered female nurses, however, as more males were injured, it became necessary for more females to step in and become nurses. Though some people today are surprised by Walt Whitman’s nursing career, at the time it was not unusual for a male to be a nurse.

Walt Whitman as a Poet

Whitman is considered one of America’s most influential poets, along with Emily Dickinson and Ralph Waldo Emerson. In 1885 he wrote his infamous poetry book, Leaves of Grass, that he spent the rest of his life updating and revising. This poem was met with a significant amount of criticism, as many people found it too obscene and sensual.

Whitman was even fired from his federal government job as a clerk when his employer found a copy of the poem. His book was later banned in libraries, and eventually legally banned in Boston. The president of Yale in 1870 compared the obscenity of Whitman’s book to one walking through the streets naked.

In 1865, Whitman wrote a poem, The Wound Dresser, which portrayed some of the work he’d done and seen as a volunteer nurse. A great deal of insight into the conditions of the Army hospitals during the Civil War can be gained from his work.

Walt Whitman as a Journalist

In 1841, Whitman began a career in journalism and founded the newspaper The Long-Islander. A few years later he became the editor of Brooklyn Daily Eagle, where he created a space for public health reform conversations. He appeared to be passionate about public health issues, as he often wrote about topics such as cholera, personal hygiene, and air quality.

It was 20 years after this extensive journalism history and dedication to public health issues that he visited his brother in the Army hospital. After witnessing the mass tragedy and lives lost, Whitman committed himself to helping in any way that he could. The war, according to the poet, symbolized the loss of democracy in the United States.

Walt Whitman: Nursing Lessons for Today

Whitman’s writings of his experiences in the hospitals creates valuable timestamps in history that show how nursing has changed (or not).

1. Need for Nurses

The need for nurses is not a new phenomenon. Dating back to the 19th century, there was a dire need for nurses during the Civil War. Because so many men were injured in the war, there weren’t enough men to meet the increased demand for nurses at that time. Although the causes for the nursing shortage were vastly different than the causes today — the need was still there.

2. Nursing Shortage Is a Myth

The need for nurses during the Civil War was real due to the historical, social, political, and cultural context of that time — but it was also a solvable problem. There wasn’t truly a shortage of nurses — there was a shortage of creative thinking and willingness to change long standing beliefs, norms, and patterns.

Maybe you’ve heard nurses say that the nursing shortage today is a myth? By that, they mean there are qualified, adept nurses capable of working. Rather, there’s a shortage of nurses willing to work in unethical environments.

Similarly, there wasn’t a true shortage of nurses during the Civil War — there was a shortage of men capable of fulfilling the role of a nurse. Once the idea was challenged and women were allowed to become nurses (out of necessity), the nursing shortage was solved.

3. The Gendering of Nursing

When the Civil War began, medical officers didn’t believe women could handle the hardships involved in caring for injured men and working in the hospital. Women were also seen as weak and uneducated, and were publicly treated with disdain for working in hospitals.

At the time, it went against social norms to have women attend to the physical care of men unless they were their spouse or family. A woman’s role was seen as strictly in the home — they were expected to cook, clean, raise children, and host guests. When thousands of men were injured, the overwhelming demand for hands-on support overpowered the cultural taboo, allowing women a chance to enter nursing.

Interestingly, nursing is now commonly thought of as a woman’s career, although there was a time it was believed to be the opposite. Today, many more men are being drawn to the profession due to the allure of a stable income, job security, autonomy, and an intellectually stimulating career.

4. Nursing Education Has Evolved

The career path of healthcare professionals has changed a lot since Walt Whitman — nursing programs didn’t exist in an official capacity back then. The education was primarily experiential. He began visiting soldiers, observing other nurses, and lending a helping hand.

Today, the process of becoming a nurse is very regulated, concrete, and rigorous. The fastest path takes about two years, with extensive clinical and laboratory training, a national exam to become licensed, and a state board of nursing to oversee their practice. The beauty of this is that the nursing scope of practice has become more universal in some ways. However, it certainly does take more time and financial investment to become a nurse.

5. Be a Voice for Patients

Part of what made Whitman’s writing so unusual and remarkable was his unique perspective — a nurse attending to patients at the bedside during a war. His prior career as a poet and journalist helped his voice reach the masses, enabling society to glean insight into the military hospitals and hear real-life stories they may not have otherwise. It was the perfect storm of being in the right place at the right time — Whitman’s influence allowed him to disperse his writing to spread these stories fairly quickly.

As a result, the public knew what they could do to help and had a realistic sense of what was happening inside the medical hospitals. Similarly, nurses today have unique perspectives and insights to share about the realities that go on inside hospitals, clinics, and offices. Whether nurses choose to use their voice as writers, advocates, lobbyists, or leaders, they play a vital role in shaping the future of healthcare and the public’s well-being.

Your Path to Excellence

There’s plenty of inspiration to be had from the life of Walt Whitman. Nursing is a career path that’s open to all who are willing to put in the work. Looking for a supportive employer? You can find the job that fits your needs on IntelyCare. We serve nurses, so you can serve others, and yourself.