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Phoebe Yates Pember

PEMBER, PHOEBE YATES (1823–1913), hospital superintendent during the American Civil War and author of a highly regarded memoir. Pember was born in Charleston, South Carolina, to the well-to-do Jacob Clavius Levy and Fanny Yates, the fourth of seven children. Widowed in 1861 when her husband, Thoman Pember, died of tuberculosis, she arrived in Richmond, Virginia, where her acquaintance with the wife of Secretary of War Randolph led to an offer to serve as superintendent or chief matron of one of the five "divisions" of Chimborazo Hospital, the largest in the world at the time and fated to treat 76,000 patients during the war. Each division consisted of around 30 wards housing 40–60 patients and another 20 or so Sibley tents for convalescents. Pember took up her duties in December 1862 and remained at her post until the collapse of the Confederacy in April 1865, walking through near-empty wards as "every man who could crawl had tried to escape a Northern prison."

Pember's memoir, A Southern Woman's Story (1879), tells of hospital life at a time when twice as many patients were dying of disease as were being killed in battle, neither the etiology of disease nor the principles of hygiene were understood, and the only surgical procedure known to physicians was amputation. In this environment, facing chronic shortages of food, medicine, and equipment and fighting off raiders of the medicinal whiskey barrel and hordes of rats consuming the flesh of the dying, Pember acted with energy and determination, heroically bringing what little relief she could to the stricken. Sometimes humorous, often harrowing, and never sparing in its criticism of incompetence, Pember's memoir throws light on the lives and deaths of ordinary people caught in a murderous war and giving "the last full measure" of themselves. After the war Pember traveled widely in Europe and the United States. She died in Pittsburgh.


B.I. Wiley, Introduction to Phoebe Yates Pember, A Southern Woman's Story (1959), with private correspondence appended; "History of Chimborazo Hospital, CSA," in: Southern Historical Society Papers, 36 (1908; reprinted 1991), 86–94.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.