Ambulances, prosthetics and painkillers: Innovations from the Civil War

Nichole Danyla

Staff Writer

“[Civil War medicine] is the forerunner of our modern medicine,” said Paul Supley, a “Live Historian” re-enactor, to the audience which crowded the Multipurpose Room in the Marvin Library on Thursday.

Programs and practices from the Civil War laid the groundwork for our modern practices and others that are still used today. For example, according to Supley, the Civil War caused the creation of standardized tests in the medical profession to ensure doctors have the necessary training.

“Prior to the beginning of the Civil War in 1860, there were only 80 surgeons in the military.” Supley said. “Almost half of the Union surgeons, prior to the Civil War, resigned their commission and became surgeons in the Confederate army.” This left a need for surgeons and medics in the army. Therefore, in 1861-62, Union surgeons were being recruited and volunteering just like soldiers.

During this time, said Supley, “[surgeons were] not necessarily true doctors. As in politics like today, people got appointed by who they knew, not necessarily what their qualifications were, and for the first two years of the war, the Union suffered from a lot of bad medical practitioners.”

He said that because of this, “when the first Battle of Manassas came out in the first couple months of 1861, the Confederate actually had a better medical establishment than the Union Army. Union soldiers liked to go to Confederate hospitals if they were captured, especially around Richmond, because they were getting better medical treatment than in their own camps.”

The Civil War also created a need for pharmaceutical companies to supply bandages, medications, and prosthetics. According to Supley, more people were amputated during the Civil War than any war before or since, until the current Iraq War. “A lot of the prosthetics you see [today] came about because of the Civil War,” he said.

In fact, amputations were the main procedures that general hospitals did. “The average amputation took about 15 minutes without complications,” said Supley.

“99.9 percent of all surgical procedures, North and South, during the Civil War, people were under anesthesia. It is a myth and a fallacy that they were chewing bullets and bearing it. The records indicate that it’s not true,” Supley said.

Two anesthetics commonly used during that time were ether and chloroform. “Ether is a very unstable product, it is very hard to manufacture, it doesn’t travel well, it doesn’t keep well, and it’s highly flammable,” said Supley. “Chloroform can be mass-produced, travels very well, keeps very well, and does the same thing [as ether].” So chloroform was the drug of choice. In fact, both anesthetics were used in operating rooms on and off the battlefield through the 1970s.

One of the drugs commonly used to relieve pain before and after surgery was made in China. Called Sulfate of Morphia, when combined with alcohol it is called morphine. Many soldiers became addicted to morphine after the war.

Another pain reliever given to patients was called the blue mass pill. The blue mass pill was actually a mercury pill. Today it is known as an extremely deadly substance, but back then doctors and apothecaries only knew it gave people a euphoric high.

Along with the pharmaceutical industry came private organizations that helped soldiers. The Christian Commission, which later became the YMCA, was formed after the Battle of Antietam on Sep. 17, 1862. Nuns volunteered to take care of the sick and injured on the battlefields and in field hospitals. They also started the Ambulance Corps.

“The ambulance system came about in late 1862. Prior to the ambulance system, it was basically put anybody on anything that moves, including somebody’s back or stretcher, and transport them. Well, that’s not going to work with mass casualties, especially over long distances,” said Supley.

The Christian Commission bought riverboats that would be used only to transport medicine, supplies, and the wounded. They wouldn’t be used to transport troops at all. Prior to that point, horse-drawn ambulances could be commandeered to move troops and camp supplies to and from the front line, causing many people to die waiting to get to the hospital.

Another organization that helped soldiers was the New York City-based Sanitary Commission, which would later become the Red Cross. During the Civil War, the Sanitary Commission sent knit socks and food to soldiers in combat. It also convinced the Army not to build camp latrines near local waterways.

This was an important matter because camp disease killed almost twice as many soldiers as battlefield injury did, according to Supley, and aside from childhood illnesses like chicken pox, dysentery was the leading cause of death. Dysentery is chronic diarrhea caused by a bacterial infection in the gut, often from drinking contaminated water. The practice of building latrines near a camp’s fresh water supply caused fecal contaminants to leak into the groundwater and pollute it.

After Supley’s presentation, people could examine some of the medical equipment used in the Civil War. Most of the tools and gear on display, including the coat Supley was wearing, were either the original tools surgeons used during the war or a replica of them.

“I really liked [the presentation],” said Liz Pompa, an individual studies major and one of only three students in attendance. “It was pretty in-depth. I do feel bad that it was just an hour, but I think there were a lot more similarities between the medicine that they used and we continued [to use] in modern medicine.”


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