Lifesaving Medical Lessons From the Civil War

How military carnage advances civilian medicine, even if it's no consolation to the families devastated by death and disability

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It sounds like the worst kind of forced positive thinking to say that military carnage advances civilian medicine. But it's true, according to this report in the Annapolis Herald-Mail:

"In many ways, the battlefield was the birthplace of modern emergency medicine," said George Wunderlich, executive director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Md., who also oversees the Pry House Field Hospital Museum on Antietam National Battlefield.

The 600,000 deaths attributed to the Civil War likely would have paled in comparison to the millions of people who would have died had doctors not been given the opportunity to hone their skills on diseased and wounded soldiers.

"Medicine might have waited another 25 years to catch up had it not been for the Civil War," Wunderlich said. "Large numbers of men fighting with these improved weapons caused the medical department to find new ways."

Of course that was hardly a consolation to the hundreds of thousands of families devastated by death and disability, no reason to glorify war. Protective helmets could have been manufactured and used in mining and construction before World War I, but it took life in the trenches to demonstrate their value.

And who's leading the movement to turn back the scandalous rate of hospital infections? The Veterans Health Administration

For the long-term picture, equally absorbing for health professionals, academic historians, and military history fans, I recommend Richard A. Gabriel and Karen S. Metz's A History of Military Medicine. It shows, among other things, how wars have steadily become less lethal per thousand soldier days, over two centuries.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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