Saturday, July 23, 2011

“So Much Need of Service” – The Diary of a Civil War Nurse

Where: National Museum of American History

When: through July 29, 2011

I think my favorite part of the American History museum is the Small Documents Gallery. It's generally not too crowded, as it's located down an unattractive hallway that screams "Staff Only." It also tends to focus on written materials, and not the latest technological marvels, although they have certainly made use of computer technology to expand their exhibits. The fact that it's tucked away and low-tech appeals to me, and if I'm often one of a select few in the room, that's even better.

The current exhibit is one about a woman, Amanda Akin, who, at age 35, left her home in New York to become a nurse at a hospital in DC during the Civil War. The hospital in which she served is no standing; it was located where the Air and Space Museum sits now.

At that time, nursing was not a profession, so you learned how to care for patients on the job. Frightening thought both for the would-be nurses and the patients! Those who were white and upper or middle-class were called nurses, others were given various, less exalted titles (cook, laundress, matron), but did many of the same jobs.

Akin kept a journal during her year as a nurse and corresponded regularly with her family. These writings formed the basis for a book she wrote years later about her experiences. The exhibit includes a copy of her book, and one volume of her journal (the other volumes appear to have been lost). She noted that she had "forgotten how to feel" as a result of seeing so much suffering around her, and that she felt "entirely separated from the world I left behind." Understandable, when you consider the stress of caring for severely wounded men, and the length of her days.

Verdict: As with all shows in the Documents Gallery, it's short enough to make a fine lunchtime outing, and Akin's story is a compelling one. Worth a look in.

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