Hearts of Wisdom

Front Cover
Harvard University Press, Jun 30, 2009 - Medical - 336 pages
0 Reviews
The image of the female caregiver holding a midnight vigil at the bedside of a sick relative is so firmly rooted in our collective imagination we might assume that such caregiving would have attracted the scrutiny of numerous historians. As Emily Abel demonstrates in this groundbreaking study of caregiving in America across class and ethnic divides and over the course of ninety years, this has hardly been the case.

While caring for sick and disabled family members was commonplace for women in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century America, that caregiving, the caregivers' experience of it, and the medical profession's reaction to it took diverse and sometimes unexpected forms. A complex series of historical changes, Abel shows, has profoundly altered the content and cultural meaning of care. Hearts of Wisdom is an immersion into that "world of care." Drawing on antebellum slave narratives, white farm women's diaries, and public health records, Abel puts together a multifaceted picture of what caregiving meant to American women--and what it cost them--from the pre-Civil War years to the brink of America's entry into the Second World War. She shows that caregiving offered women an arena in which experience could be parlayed into expertise, while at the same time the revolution in bacteriology and the transformation of the formal health care system were weakening women's claim to that expertise.

Table of Contents:


Part One: 1850-1890
1. "Hot Flannels, Hot Teas, and a Great Deal of Care": Emily Hawley Gillespie and Sarah Gillespie, 1858-1888
2. An Overview of Nineteenth-Century Caregiving
3. "Tried at the Quilting Bees": Con'icts between "Old Ladies" and Aspiring Professionals

Part Two: 1890-1940
4. A "Terrible and Exhausting" Struggle: Martha Shaw Farnsworth, 1890-1924
5. "Just as You Direct": Caregiver Translations of Medical Authority
6. Negotiating Public Health Directives: Poor New Yorkers at the Turn of the Century

Reviews of this book:
This excellent historical review of female caregiving within families as a transformative experience identifies conditions that make this form of human connectedness rewarding and meaningful.
--J.E. Thompson, Choice

This is a breathtaking work in terms of its depth and its breadth. Emily Abel's research is impressive in its time frame, wide range of topics, and wonderful source material. What she has given us, for the first time, is a full-length study of the female support network, not only for childbirth but for a whole range of health issues. With her pleasing writing style and clear, readable prose, she gives us much more than mere glimpses of anonymous people--she provides the reader with a sense of the texture of human lives.
--Susan L. Smith, University of Alberta

The reader of Hearts of Wisdom is surprised by the topic and content, but is left with the sense that the most central story of human possibility has been left out of all other history books. The work offers a substantive contribution to history, feminist scholarship, caregiving professions, and informal caregivers.
--Patricia Benner, R.N., Ph.D, University of California, San Francisco

What people are saying - Write a review

We haven't found any reviews in the usual places.


Hot Flannels Hot Teas and a Great Deal of Care Emily Hawley Gillespie and Sarah Gillespie 18581888
An Overview of NineteenthCentury Caregiving
Tried at the Quilting Bees Conflicts between Old Ladies and Aspiring Professionals
A Terrible and Exhausting Struggle Martha Shaw Farnsworth 18901924
Just as You Direct Caregiver Translations of Medical Authority
Negotiating Public Health Directives Poor New Yorkers at the Turn of the Century
Caregiving during the Great Depression Mothers Seeking Childrens Health Care and American Indians Encountering Public Health Nurses
Very Dear to My Heart Confronting Labels of Feeblemindedness and Epilepsy
Like Ordinary Hearing Children Raising Offspring according to Oralist Dictates
The Uses of the Past

Other editions - View all

Common terms and phrases

Popular passages

Page 25 - I can't tell how many washings and ironings I have done. But a doz. pillow slips had to be changed each day besides sheets and clothes and I [remember] washing and ironing 23 slips one day when I came home and then baking a doz. Pumpkin pies and making cake and washing all the dishes making the beds and to see every thing else." She also complained about the toll caring took on her own health: "I wrenched my back lifting and turning Henry and now my left wrist is 'gun

References to this book

All Book Search results »

About the author (2009)

Emily K. Abel is Professor of Health Services and Women's Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Public Health.

Bibliographic information