Mary Jane Safford, M.D. (1834-1891)


Mary Jane Safford is best known for her nursing efforts on the battle fields of the Civil War, an experience that directed her toward a career in medicine. Spending most of her childhood in Illinois, Safford finally settled in the town of Cairo. Because of its locality at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, Cairo, Illinois became an important wartime location.
In the spring of 1861, volunteer soldiers descended upon the town, setting up camps along the river banks. Epidemic diseases soon spread among the troops, and Safford began treating soldiers and distributing food she had prepared. In 1862, Safford nursed the wounded in the battles of Belmont and Fort Donelson, and the Battle of Shiloh after which time she worked on the hospital ship Hazel Dell where she was christened the “Angel of Cairo.” During the battle of Belmont, she courageously treated the wounded walking the battlefield with a white handkerchief tied to a stick amidst enemy fire. Brought to the brink of exhaustion by her ceaseless nursing efforts, Safford was forced to take a rest from her duties.

After her convalescence, Safford entered the New York Medical College for Women and received her M.D. in 1869. She undertook advanced training in Europe for three years, and in 1872 opened a private practice in Chicago. After marrying a Bostonian in 1873, Safford moved to Boston with her practice. She was one of Boston University School of Medicine’s founding faculty; in 1873, she was appointed Professor of Diseases of Women; and from 1878 to 1886, she was Professor of Gynecology.