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How War Brings About Medical Advances - Part III

World Wars I and II weren’t without their own medical practices that might seem barbaric by today’s standards.

In World War I, the unsanitary conditions were still a major killer. The trenches where much of the fighting took place were surrounded by rotting corpses, unwashed soldiers, and overflowing latrines. In the final years of the war, the worldwide influenza epidemic took hold, killing young men faster than a slew of bullets ever could. In 1918 alone, one single British military hospital admitted 600 soldiers a day suffering from influenza.

But just as was the case in the Civil War, medical innovations were born of the tragic conditions. For the first time, the United States created its own official military medical corps, patterned after those of our European allies. It was the fastest expansion of any military medical corps in world history.


Dr. Jonathan Letterman’s invention of ambulances got a huge technological boost, as motorized vehicles were used for the first time to bring injured patients to medical help. And although blood loss was still a life-threatening condition for soldiers suffering a penetrating bullet or shrapnel wound, blood transfusions were used for the first time to give some of them a fighting chance at survival.

WWII field hospital
Courtesy National Museum of Health and Medicine
WWII field hospital

The technology used to evacuate patients from the battlefield became even more advanced during World War II. For the first time, wounded soldiers could be flown by airplane to a military hospital. In addition, WWII saw the development of the mobile army surgical hospital (think of the TV show MASH, which highlighted such a hospital during the Korean War).

Speaking of the Korean War, that conflict continued the advancement of air evacuations with the use of helicopters. A wounded warfighter could be treated within four to six hours of his gunshot wound.

By the time the United States got involved in the Vietnam War, helicopter technology had advanced enough that a warfighter with a bullet wound could be treated within an hour. Military historian Scott McGaugh estimates Army medical rescue helicopter missions evacuated 300,000 troops to aid stations and hospitals during the Vietnam War.

The nature of the Vietnam War gave the military medical corps an opportunity to be closer to the action, and therefore, more able to help save lives. McGaugh writes:

“The static nature of guerrilla warfare in the jungle enabled the military to establish fully equipped hospitals on the fringe of combat… Field hospitals in Vietnam functioned at the level of a four-hundred-bed general hospital in the United States.”

And yet a soldier in Vietnam still had a one-in-four chance of dying from his wounds.

Tomorrow, Part IV - Iraq and Afghanistan