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How War Brings About Medical Advances - Part II

Photo credit: Library of Congress

Amputation during Battle of Gettysburg in the Civil War

Regrettably for troops fighting in the Civil War, combat medicine hadn’t really advanced much since the end of the Revolutionary War.

Between 1861 and 1865, an estimated 670,000 Americans were killed. Although black and white photos of corpses littering battlefields seem to suggest otherwise, most of the 620,000 soldiers who died in the Civil War perished from disease, or infection from their wounds, according to military historian Erna Risch, author of Supplying Washington’s Army.

Surgeons still didn’t understand why performing operations with unclean hands might pose a problem to the patient. Combat “hospitals” were often makeshift and poorly equipped, especially in the South, which was dealing with the North’s embargo on supplies like ether and bandages and surgical tools. Think of the scene in "Gone With The Wind," where Scarlett O’Hara is helping in a Confederate Hospital. The heat, the filth, the stench of death sent her running. That wasn’t Hollywood exaggeration. Those conditions were all too real.

But despite the disturbing statistics, the Civil War marked a turning point in combat medicine, according to George Wunderlich, executive director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Maryland:

"Civil War medicine was every bit as barbaric as it's made out to be, and surgeons weren't washing their hands. But it was a million times more modern than almost anyone thinks. And there are a lot of lessons we can still learn from today."

Major medical advances to come out of the Civil War include limb amputations as a way of preventing gangrene from killing the patient, the use of anesthetics like chloroform and ether to control pain during surgery and after. For the first time, surgeons used their tools to reconstruct facial features disfigured by war wounds.

Dr. Jonathan Letterman, who many consider to be the first pioneer in the field of war medicine, came up with the idea of using medically-equipped carriages as a means to get the injured to places where they could receive medical help in a timely manner. And thus, the first ambulances were born.

Tomorrow, Part III - World Wars I and II

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