Civil War Medicine: Part 4/4

Today, we’re finishing up with Erin Rainwater’s amazing series on Civil War medicine. You can find Part I, Part II, and Part III by clicking the links.

Civil War Medicine: Hapless or Heroic in Retrospect? 

History has not always been kind to Civil War practitioners of medicine. The methods discussed in the previous posts seem barbaric to us now, and the lack of medical knowledge regarding foundational principles such as asepsis, infection, and sanitation is regarded as tragically antiquated. Their twenty per cent mortality rate is unacceptable by today’s standards. More horror stories abound. From our retrospective and often condescending viewpoint, we smugly judge one century’s standards by the current set. This is not only an unfair but a flawed verdict. The inadequacies of those medical care deliverers have received considerably more attention than their accomplishments, which were many.

If judged by the standards of their day, Civil War doctors and nurses should be hailed as remarkably successful.  With the existence of bacteria still only theoretical, with the available instruments and anesthesia, and with the indescribable numbers of patients inflicted upon them, the fact they saved lives in such unhoped-for numbers is a credit to their skill, creativity, and tenacity.

In the war that preceded this one, the Mexican-American War, ten men died of disease for every one killed in combat. During the Civil War, that ratio was reduced to 2:1. That alone is measurable evidence of an enormous advancement in medical care in the span of under two decades, much of which came about as a result of the war. The creation of frontline field hospitals, ambulance services, and the utilization of female nurses should cause modern historians to conclude that the maligned medical practitioners during the Civil War should be reckoned as heroic, not hapless. Their crude system of triage, setting aside men wounded through the head, chest or abdomen because they would most likely die seems brutal, but with the knowledge and little time available, it allowed surgeons to save those who could be saved. Modern mass casualty triage is not so far removed from this practice.

Aside from medical care administered to the living, advancements in post mortem measures took place as well. Prior to the war, embalming was usually only done to preserve specimens for scientific study. Because many families of killed soldiers desired to bring them home for burial, embalming became more commonplace.

I have only skimmed the surface in relating how the War Between the States necessitated numerous adaptations in the delivery of medical care, and how we benefit even today from some of those changes. These are just some examples of not only medical but also the many moral and social advancements that came as a result of the American Civil War. I truly hope these four posts have been educational and entertaining, and that perhaps this information will help you gain a greater appreciation of our sesquicentennial commemorations over the course of the next four years.

REFERENCES:

Burns, Stanley B., MD, FACS, “The Naldecon Gallery of Medial History,” Bristol Laboratories, © 1987.

Civil War Manuscripts, Library of Congress.

Downs, Robert B., Books That Changed Amercia.

Miller, Francis Trevelyan, ed., The Photographic History of the Civil War, Prisons and Hospitals

Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, and Burns, Ken, The Civil War, An Illustrated History. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., © 1990.

The Day Richmond Died.

www.civilwarhome.com/medicinehistory

www.civilwarsurgeons.org

www.members.cox.net/cwsurgn/civilwar

http://home.nc.rr.com/fieldhospcsa

*********************************************************************************************Erin Rainwater is a Pennsylvania native whose trip to Gettysburg when she was twelve enhanced her already deep interest in the Civil War. She attended Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, and entered the Army Nurse Corps upon graduation.  Serving during the Vietnam War era, she cared for the bodies and spirits of soldiers and veterans, including repatriated POWs and MIAs. Now living in Colorado, she is a member of a Disaster Medical Assistance Team, and has been deployed to disaster areas around the country. True Colors is partly based on her military and nursing experiences as well as extensive research. She also authored The Arrow That Flieth By Day, a historical love story set in 1860s Colorado, and Refining Fires, a uniquely written love story that was released in July, 2010. Erin invites you to visit her “virtual fireside”.

***Content reposted from January 31, 2011.***

Civil War Medicine: Part 3/4

We’re continuing Erin Rainwater’s four part series on Civil War Medicine. You can find Part I and Part II by clicking the links.

Conditions and Treatment

Unlike today, the majority of soldier deaths during the Civil War were attributed to disease. Unsanitary and close-quarter living conditions in the camps led to outbreaks of dysentery, typhoid, measles, smallpox, chicken pox, throat distemper (diphtheria), and other diseases. Scurvy and other nutritional disorders were prevalent, as was typhus from lice and fleas.

Mosquito-borne illnesses such as yellow fever and “ague” (malaria) also posed a threat, although they were believed due to “miasmic vapors” from stagnant waters. Minor wounds such as from a splinter, a scratched mosquito bite, or the rub of a boot could become infected and ultimately lead to septicemia and death. Lacking scientific knowledge regarding the causes of disease, physicians depended on a few standard remedies, such as quinine, calomel, ipecac and opium to cure most symptoms. Mercury was used to treat venereal disease, although it only cleared the symptoms and was not a cure. Nitric acid was poured on open wounds to kill infection. It also seared the flesh.

The physiology of some conditions, such as the gastrointestinal system, was surprisingly well known back then. The digestive process was understood, as well as the length of time for various foods to be digested. Much of this knowledge came from Dr. William Beaumont’s experiments and studies, including the observation of an open stomach wound in a man who’d been shot.

Gastrostomy tubes were used for feeding patients with such wounds, and drains were placed to remove infectious drainage and gastric juices. Cardiopulmonary-wise, physicians used stethoscopes to discern crepitant rales and rhonchi, heart murmurs, and friction rubs. They used percussion techniques in the physical exam to appreciate dullness and diminished resonance of the chest and abdomen. Mercury thermometers were available but rarely used. Fever was considered a disease, and temperatures were taken only to investigate unusual maladies or those of special concern. Doctors then were faced with some of the same frustrations of today: addicts pilfering drugs and alcohol, and well-intentioned family members offering food to patients with serious stomach and intestinal ailments and wounds.

Wounds, of course, were the other consideration in this war of inconceivable casualties. As bullet manufacturing changed during the war so did the wounds they left. The small- caliber round balls shot from a smooth bore musket often produced a different type of wound than the newer, faster velocity, conical-shaped slugs later produced. All had the capacity to incur catastrophic injuries beyond repair. In battlefront hospitals, there were few alternatives to amputation of limb wounds, and an experienced surgeon could perform the procedure in under ten minutes.

Later in the war, some surgeons experimented with blood vessel resection, but amputation remained far more common. Soldiers with head and chest wounds were given a poor prognosis, and often not considered treatable. Bullet wounds were the most common by far, but those from canister, cannonballs, shells, sword and saber had to be reckoned with as well.

It was considered routine that combat wounds become infected. Pus was considered “laudable” because the body was discharging poisons, a necessary adjunct to proper healing. In the rare instances pus did not appear, it was called “union by first intention” and considered an utter mystery. Yet there were five types of infections acknowledged as abnormal.

A triad of infections referred to as “hospitalism” included gangrene, erysipelas (a skin infection we now know is caused by strep), and pyemia (septicemia, or “blood poisoning.”) The mortality rate from these hospital-acquired infections reached ninety-five per cent. The survivor of a “routine” infection often became the victim of osteomyelitis, a chronic bone infection, and was doomed to a slow and painful death from a festering wound where entire sections of bone would be eaten away. Tetanus was present, though less common than other diseases, because most battles were fought on virgin soil unfouled by the manure that carries the tetanus spores.

Wet dressings could be applied utilizing a siphoning technique. One end of a strip of cotton or linen was placed in a container of water suspended over a wound. The other end of the material hung just above the wound but below the level of the water, thus providing a continuous drip. The nurse was freed up from having to return for frequent remoistening of the bandage. Oilcloths were placed to catch the excess water and drain it into a vessel on the floor.

With flies rampant, so were their eggs, or maggots. Although the critters caused no pain, female nurses were disgusted by them and their wiggling bothered the wounded men. Yet some discerning surgeons detected that wounds infested by maggots healed more rapidly, and that the little vermin actually cleansed wounds, digesting and removing dead tissue while leaving healthy tissue uninjured. Rats reportedly tendered similar results. Some modern day physicians have accepted maggot therapy as useful for debridement, although I’ve yet to see where rat therapy has become part of standard treatment.

Without the benefit of x-ray equipment, sometimes the only way to hit upon the location of a bullet was to take “soundings.” In my novel True Colors Cassie Golden, who at this point thinks she’s seen everything, watches in awe as a Confederate surgeon inserts a porcelain-tipped probe into a wound and taps it against various obstacles. She observes that the sound of tapping bone versus lead is distinguishable. Additionally, when the doctor rubs the white-tipped probe against lead it comes out streaked with gray—a sign it has detected its quarry. Like all nurses, she realizes that the learning process is never over.

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Erin Rainwater is a Pennsylvania native whose trip to Gettysburg when she was twelve enhanced her already deep interest in the Civil War. She attended Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, and entered the Army Nurse Corps upon graduation.  Serving during the Vietnam War era, she cared for the bodies and spirits of soldiers and veterans, including repatriated POWs and MIAs. Now living in Colorado, she is a member of a Disaster Medical Assistance Team, and has been deployed to disaster areas around the country. True Colors is partly based on her military and nursing experiences as well as extensive research. She also authored The Arrow That Flieth By Day, a historical love story set in 1860s Colorado, and Refining Fires, a uniquely written love story that was released in July, 2010. Erin invites you to visit her “virtual fireside”.

***Content reposted from January 24, 2011.***

Civil War Medicine: Part 2/4

We’re continuing our four part series with Erin Rainwater and her research into Civil War Medicine. You can find Part I here.

Changes in delivery of medical care resulting from the war.

When you look at the casualties wrought by the Civil War it is mind-boggling. The Battle of Antietam in Maryland was the single bloodiest day of the war. There were over 20,000 American casualties in a single day (North and South combined). The Battle of Gettysburg was fought over three days, and 51,000 men were killed, wounded or missing. In all, more than 620,000 men died during the four-year conflict.

Over half perished from disease, not battle wounds. These numbers are inconceivable, both in terms of lives lost and in the challenge of delivering medical care in a day prior to asepsis (germ-free), antibiotics, and helicopter aerovacs. As a result of the enormous casualties, many of whom were brought into nearby towns where churches, hotels, barns and even citizens’ homes were requisitioned by the armies and made into makeshift hospitals, a new system of medical care delivery was born of necessity.

Both governments ordered the swift construction of general hospitals to treat the injured and ill. Additionally, frontline hospitals were born of necessity. Initially, the ambulance service was maintained and run by the Quartermaster Corps. Around 1862, the medical director of the Union army, Jonathan Letterman (for whom the Army hospital in San Francisco was named) developed a system whereby ambulances and trained attendants were assigned to and moved with a division.

This provided for more immediate collection of the wounded from the battlefield and transport to dressing stations and on to field hospitals. The current system of rapid response and ambulance conveyance was conceived due to the necessities brought on by the Civil War. It is interesting to note that casualties from both sides were treated at the frontline hospitals.

When (unsterile) silk, cotton or catgut ligatures were at a premium, horse hair was boiled to soften the texture to make it pliable for use as suture material. It was noted by some that the infection rate dropped significantly when this was used. The same was true when a lack of reusable sponges led to the utilization of one-time use rags for cleansing wounds. Applying iodine to wounds and wiping instruments with chlorine between surgeries brought similar results, but without scientific data to prove a correlation, some physicians saw no sense in these procedures.

The surgeon general remained opposed to the use of civilians and women in the hospitals, but the lack of males to perform the required duties forced the issue. Dorothea Dix, highly respected as a crusader for improving conditions in prisons and hospital for the mentally ill, managed to convince skeptical military and government officials that certain women were capable of dealing with what the war did to men.

With the news of her appointment as Superintendent of Women Nurses in June, 1861 came torrents of applications from women offering their services. Working for no pay, Miss Dix personally looked after the well-being of the female nurses she hired as well as the soldiers to whom they ministered. However, in her attempt to weed out those merely looking for a husband, she would only hire women over thirty or married, strong, and plain of face and dress. Some hospitals’ chief surgeons rejected the hiring authority given Miss Dix, and in a show of defiance, refused to accept her nurses on their wards.

It took a literal Act of Congress to allow the surgeons to bypass her authority and hire nurses on their own. This is what happens to the heroine in my novel, True Colors, who is considered unacceptable by Miss Dix because she is under thirty, unmarried, and not so plain. Disappointed yet undaunted, Cassie follows in the footsteps of many of her fellow rejects and marches straightway to an Army hospital and applies directly to the surgeon-in-charge. She is fortunate in that this doctor had worked alongside British Army surgeons in the Crimean War a decade earlier, and was appreciative of the role of female nurses. He hires her on the spot.

The significance of the contribution of women nurses during this conflict should not be understated. Rather than being seen as mere helpers of the main players—interesting but insubstantial—available evidence indicates their activities had important ramifications in both the immediate medical sense and the broader social sense. Truly they were the forerunners of female nurses of our generation.

*********************************************************************************************Erin Rainwater is a Pennsylvania native whose trip to Gettysburg when she was twelve enhanced her already deep interest in the Civil War. She attended Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, and entered the Army Nurse Corps upon graduation.  Serving during the Vietnam War era, she cared for the bodies and spirits of soldiers and veterans, including repatriated POWs and MIAs. Now living in Colorado, she is a member of a Disaster Medical Assistance Team, and has been deployed to disaster areas around the country. True Colors is partly based on her military and nursing experiences as well as extensive research. She also authored The Arrow That Flieth By Day, a historical love story set in 1860s Colorado, and Refining Fires, a uniquely written love story that was released in July, 2010. Erin invites you to visit her “virtual fireside”.

***Content originally posted January 17, 2011.***

Civil War Medicine: Part 1/4

I’m pleased to host Erin Rainwater as she shares her expertise concerning Civil War Medicine.

Welcome, Erin!

Pre-war medical system.

This year marks the Sesquicentennial (150-year anniversary) of the beginning of the Civil War. If you’ve never studied it much, I recommend you use these four commemorative years as an incentive to expand your knowledge of it.

That war was a watershed time in our nation’s history like no other event before or since, in war or peacetime. It even changed the way citizens referred to their nation. From the time of the Revolution until then the country was thought of as a collection of independent states. Shelby Foote, the Civil War historian who made you feel like you were there, said that prior to the war people would say, “The United States are…” As a result of the war, it was grammatically spoken as “The United States is…” That’s what that war accomplished, Foote said. It made us an is.

There are many interesting facets regarding the standards of medical care and how it was delivered back when we were still an are. Some of what we read about seems barbaric to us now, yet American surgeons were up to international standards of medical science of the time. Furthermore, as often happens in time of war, this conflict quickly propelled physicians into the role of leaders in medical and surgical breakthroughs.

Prior to the war, cleanliness was regarded as insignificant except in respect to gross contamination by foreign matter. Surgeons operated in street clothes or donned a surgical apron. They might wipe bloody and pus-laden instruments on their aprons or a rag, but washing them wasn’t routine. Clean linens and washed hands were statistically proven to be of value but rejected as non-scientific.

Medical school in the 1860s was normally two years long. Microscopy was taught, as was the cell theory of tissue structure. Tissue samples were stained and analyzed, urinalyses and stool studies were performed.

The primary anesthetics available were ether and chloroform, each having its pros and cons. Chloroform was non-flammable, which made it preferable during the war when gunpowder was lying about and bullets flying about. It was also faster acting. On the down side, it was easier to overdose a patient with chloroform, and anesthesia-related fatalities were higher. Surgeons and attendants, however, were more easily overcome by the vapors of ether while performing surgery.

At the outbreak of hostilities, there were few military physicians, fewer military hospitals, and lack of a hospital corps. Nursing and other duties were performed by soldiers temporarily assigned to hospital detail, and who were not necessarily qualified nor of upstanding character. After the fighting began, civilian doctors flooded into the military system. Others chose not to join up but worked as contract physicians. Doctors not only were required to be skilled but were expected to organize, equip, supply and administrate their hospitals. The enlisting, training and disciplining of subordinates was also in their job description.

Female nurses were rarely tolerated. They were believed to lack the physical strength to help wounded men, and especially in the South they were considered too delicate and refined to assist a rough soldier in bathing and tending to personal hygiene. It was generally conceded, however, that women were more attuned to the emotional needs of the sick and more skilled at “sanitary domestic economy.”

As word of Florence Nightingale’s notable work in the Crimean War spread, women’s abilities in the field of nursing became more widely acknowledged. Some American physicians who had gone to the Crimea to assist the British came home reporting that the female nurses were undeniably competent and able to care for soldiers with war-related wounds and illnesses. It was finally becoming more seemly for females to care for male patients. Their pay, however, was half of what civilian male nurses received to care for military patients. In my novel, True Colors, Cassie Golden receives the standard pay for civilian female nurses working in a government hospital—twelve dollars a month plus meals. That is for twelve-hour shifts, usually five days per week but often more. And she was glad to have it.

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Erin Rainwater is a Pennsylvania native whose trip to Gettysburg when she was twelve enhanced her already deep interest in the Civil War. She attended Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, and entered the Army Nurse Corps upon graduation.  Serving during the Vietnam War era, she cared for the bodies and spirits of soldiers and veterans, including repatriated POWs and MIAs. Now living in Colorado, she is a member of a Disaster Medical Assistance Team, and has been deployed to disaster areas around the country. True Colors is partly based on her military and nursing experiences as well as extensive research. She also authored The Arrow That Flieth By Day, a historical love story set in 1860s Colorado, and Refining Fires, a uniquely written love story that was released in July, 2010. Erin invites you to visit her “virtual fireside”.

***Contest reposted from January 10th, 2011.***

 

The Invention of the Stehoscope

I’m pleased to host historical author Ruth Axtell Morren as she posts about some of the medical research she did for her novel The Healing Season. You can find out more about Ruth by checking out her website.

the-healing-seasonThe stethoscope was invented by a French doctor, Laennec, in 1816. He discovered that you could hear sounds better from a certain distance, if there was something in between.

Back in those days, modesty many times prevented a (male) doctor from hearing a female patient’s heartbeat, because the only way you could hear it, was putting your ear up to the person’s chest.

Laennec rolled up some paper and put it against the patient’s chest and his ear to the other end, and voilà, the heartbeat sounded even clearer than if he had had his ear pressed against her.

I did a lot of research on medicine in the early nineteenth century for my regency novel, The Healing Season. 

I traveled to London and toured a museum that used to be an apothecary’s shop. It was part of the St. Guy’s/St. Thomas’s Hospital complex of that time. It was fascinating to see all the things used at that a time, especially the herbs and how pills were made.

Another interesting thing I found about that period was that at that time three kinds of medical practitioners existed: the physician, the apothecary and the surgeon.

The physician was the “profession,” only practiced by the aristocratic, university educated man. The apothecary was our pharmacist, but he learned through apprenticeship. Then there was the lowly surgeon, who evolved from the butcher, and he was strictly called in for cuts, broken bones or amputations and the few surgeries performed in those days (kidney stones being one). The physician hardly touched the patient, just prescribed tonics and dealt with “humors.” Medicine was more theoretical for this guy. The medicines he prescribed were made up by the apothecary.

What began happening, though, was that generally there weren’t that many physicians, especially away from the large cities, so apothecaries began taking over more and more of his duties. Surgeons, who also worked aboard navy ships and accompanied armies, began to perfect their technique on the battlefield (primitive triage). So, the professional lines began to blur, and the apothecary began to change into what would become the General Practitioner.

My story is about a surgeon. I also included his uncle and made him an apothecary. Some of the resources I used were Irvine Loudon’s Medical Care and the General Practitioner 1750-1850; Sherwin B. Nuland’s Doctors: The Biography of Medicine (excellent resource!); And Roy Porter’s Quacks, Fakers & Charlatans in Medicine.

This is a repost of a blog piece from November 19, 2010.

Historical Medical Question: Head Injury 1870s

April Asks:

skull-476740_1920I have a question regarding medicine in the 1870’s.  What would brain/cranial surgery consist of then?

I’ve tried to find some information on this type of operation from this time period, but have had very little luck so far.  In a quick scenario, there’s been a serious buggy accident, and the heroine of the novel has bleeding on the brain. I know one proposed procedure for this was to actually drill a hole into the skull to let out the influx of blood. Was this happening and being practiced in the 1870’s? Also, what would the medical instruments of the day have been to achieve such a surgery?

Jordyn Says:

This could definitely be a set up for a craniotomy (drilling a hole into the skull or creating a burr hole) to be used to relieve pressure within the cranium. The procedure would have been called trephining and was definitely used during your time period. Two resources for the procedure can be found here and here.

Author Question: Treatment of Burns circa 1807


Michelle G asks
:

I’m working on a historical (surprise, surprise) 1807, to be exact, in England, and wondered if you could give me a little medical advice? I’ve burnt the leg of one of my characters, a little boy, like 9, and I want him up and about in 3 weeks or so, but he can use a crutch. What would that leg look like? How much pain? How would he react that first week? I don’t want to overdo it, nor do I want to gloss over it either. What’s your .02?

Here’s what happened to him…

“Thomas leaned over the hearth to scoop a ladle of stew from the pot. He moved too fast, with too much force. The hook broke. The pot fell into the flames. Coals shot out, catching the fabric of his trousers. He tried to whack it out, brave boy, but ended up fanning it larger. He ran. I stopped him. I thought he was…” She gulped back the lump in her throat. “I thought he was dead.”


Jordyn Says:

This sounds like a pretty significant burn– his pants catching on fire. Easily partial thickness and could even be full thickness in some places. Have you considered just having the pot of stew fall on him– maybe with bare legs? This would be more partial thickness and could more likely heal in your time frame.

Full thickness burns are problematic because they usually require grafting so back then treatment was likely very limited. We also do fluid resuscitation for significant burns and if both of his legs were this severely burned– he’d need quite a bit of fluid, and again, I’m not sure this would be available during your time period.

So, I might try to back down the injury to second degree burns. Those should heal up pretty nicely in your three week time frame. Second degree or partial thickness would include skin blistering and peeling, big concern for infection (intact skin is your largest protector against infection) and dehydration initially because burns also leak a lot of fluid. He could probably walk with crutches. It’s not really a muscle injury (it would be if you go with full thickness burns– like his pants catching of fire) so he should be able to walk.
Pain is going to be a big issue. Burns are very painful. So, he’s going to need something.

Here is a very interesting link that has tons of information on the evolution of burn surgery. It will give you some treatment options for your time period. 

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Keep up with the exploits of Michelle Griep at Writer Off the LeashFacebookTwitter, and Pinterest. You can check out her latest novel,  A Heart Deceived, at David C. Cook as well as AmazonBarnes & Noble, and ChristianBook.