International Journal of Urologic History

Walt Whitman, John Mahay, and Urotrauma in the American Civil War

Michael W. Witthaus, Laena Hines, Eric Mathews, Marni Rabinowitz, Steven Hudak, and Ronald Rabinowitz
First Published: Sept. 24, 2023
DOI: 10.53101/IJUH.3.1.092401
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Walt Whitman (1819-1892) was a visionary American poet who inspired innovation within the literary landscape, choosing to preserve real, complex life with poetic imagery. He also chose to volunteer as a nurse during the American Civil War, daring to confront the violent, painful reality of war’s aftermath with precision and unflinching honesty. The United States Sanitary Commission organized volunteer nursing for the Union Army during the Civil War (1861-1865). Our objective is to investigate the urologic management and perspectives of Walt Whitman during his service as a nurse during the American Civil War.


We conducted a review of the literature pertaining to Walt Whitman, his clinical practice, and his relationship to John Mahay during the Civil War. A review of textbooks, peer-reviewed articles, works of prose, and government archives was performed. Original publications and images were reviewed through the Walt Whitman Archive, Library of Congress, the National Museum of Health and Medicine, and the archives of the International Journal of Urologic History.


During the Civil War, Whitman cared for numerous patients, including Private John Mahay, who sustained a penetrating GU injury during the second battle of Bull Run (August 29th, 1862). He passed several bone fragments per urethra, suggesting a PFUI (pelvic fracture urethral injury). Mahay continued his chronic urologic care with Walt Whitman. The entry and exit wounds resulted in fistulas to the urinary tract with documented blood, pus, and urine drainage. Mahay ultimately died on October 24th, 1863, after nearly a year of chronic urologic care. Several urinary stones were removed from Mahay’s bladder on autopsy and archived. Whitman’s account of John Mahay preserved him as a living person, his travails, and sufferings prior to the advent of modern urologic care.


Walt Whitman’s Civil War writings chose to confront reality with honesty, precision, and eloquence. His commitment to John Mahay’s care during the Civil War underscores the essential human aspects involved in acute and chronic urologic care following traumatic injury.

Editor in Chief: John L. Phillips, MD
Journal Design: Akhil A. Saji, MD
DOI: 10.53101
US ISSN: 2769-2183