Safford, Mary Jane (1834–1891)

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Safford, Mary Jane (1834–1891)

Civil War nurse, physician, and reformer. Name variations: Mary Jane Safford Blake. Born on December 31, 1834, in Hyde Park, Vermont; died on December 8, 1891, in Tarpon Springs, Florida; youngest child of Joseph Safford (a farmer) and Diantha Little Safford; attended schools in Illinois, Vermont, and Montreal, Canada; graduated from New York Medical College for Women, 1869; advanced medical training at the General Hospital of Vienna, medical centers in Germany, and at the University of Breslau; married James Blake, in 1872 (probably divorced 1880); children: (adopted) Margarita Safford; Gladys Safford.

Nicknamed the "Cairo Angel" for her service to wounded Union soldiers in Cairo, Illinois, during the Civil War; credited with being the first woman to perform an ovariotomy (early 1870s); was one of the first women elected to the Boston School Committee (1875).

A descendant of Thomas Safford, who left England in 1630 and became a founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Mary Jane Safford led a distinguished career as a physician and professor of medicine in the 19th century. Her medical career began during the Civil War, when she almost singlehandedly nursed the sick and wounded in Cairo, Illinois, over the objections of officers and surgeons. Resolutely making daily rounds, Safford delivered material aids to patients from a small basket while behind her followed a porter carrying a larger basket of provisions. Together they toured the primitive tent hospitals, braving the mud behind the levee to deliver relief to the sick. Determined to serve the Union despite the limitations imposed upon her gender, Mary Safford, like Louisa May Alcott and Clara Barton , entered nursing, the only wartime role socially acceptable for women at that time. The same determination she showed as a volunteer nurse surfaced later in her career, as she undertook medical training and engaged with issues relating to women's medical and social conditions.

Safford was born on December 31, 1834, in Hyde Park, Vermont, the youngest of five children of Joseph Safford and Diantha Little Safford . The family moved to Crete, Illinois, when she was three, and her father established a new homestead and farm there. When her mother died in 1849, Mary returned to New England to attend school in Bakersfield, Vermont; after graduating, she studied French for a year near Montreal, Canada, then studied German while living with a German family. Following her return to Illinois, she lived first in Joliet, then in Shawneetown, where she taught in a public school. She resided with an older brother, Alfred Boardman Safford, a successful businessman who helped fund the construction of the school building where she was employed. In 1858, they moved to Cairo, Illinois, where Alfred became a well-to-do banker and public benefactor.

Cairo quickly became an important military supply depot and training center at the start of the Civil War in 1861, because of its strategic position at the juncture of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. When sickness broke out, spawning a host of tent hospitals, Mary began her self-styled relief mission. She tended to both the physical and psychological needs of patients, providing them with food, handwork, games, and reading and writing materials with funding from Alfred. Working closely with surgeons, she prepared meals for patients based on individual dietary needs. She also met the energetic "Mother" Mary Ann Bickerdyke , who trained her in nursing techniques. Described as having a "pleasant voice and winning manner," the petite Mary Safford became known among her patients as the "Cairo Angel." She worked tirelessly, five times accompanying wounded men to hospitals in nearby towns on the City of Memphis, the Sanitary Commission's transport ship. Following the Battle of Shiloh, she served aboard the Hazel Dell, working to the point of collapse.

To regain her health, Safford went on an extended European tour in the summer of 1862, joining the party of an old friend from Joliet, the former governor of Illinois, Joel A. Matteson. Her continued interest in medicine drew her to visit hospitals while she was in Europe, and she became determined to attend medical school. Upon her return to America, she entered Dr. Clemence S. Lozier 's New York Medical College for Women, and graduated in 1869. That summer, she attended a women's suffrage convention in Chicago presided over by her friend Mary A. Livermore .

During the fall of 1869, Safford returned to Europe to take advanced studies in surgery at the General Hospital of Vienna. She remained in Europe for nearly three years, also studying at medical centers in Germany. At the University of Breslau, she was credited with being the first woman to perform an ovariotomy. In 1872, she opened a private practice in Chicago, where she earned a reputation both as a worthy physician and as an advocate of women's dress reform. The same year, she married James Blake and moved with him to Boston, where she joined the faculty of the newly formed Boston University School of Medicine as professor of women's diseases. Also maintaining a private practice and working on the staff of the Massachusetts Homeopathic Hospital, Safford focused her activities on women's issues, writing on dress, hygiene, and exercise, and striving to improve the conditions of working-class women. In 1875, she became one of the first women elected to the Boston School Committee.

Mary Jane Safford is thought to have divorced in 1880, when she resumed the use of her maiden name. She retired in 1886 because of frail health, and with her two adopted daughters, Margarita and Gladys Safford , moved to Tarpon Springs, Florida, to join her brother Anson P.K. Safford, the former territorial governor of Arizona. She died in Florida in 1891, only a few weeks before her 57th birthday.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Lolly Ockerstrom , freelance writer, Washington, D.C.