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A Look Back At Civil War Era Medicine On The 150th Anniversary of Battle of Gettysburg

1:43 PM, Jul 3, 2013   |    comments
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WASHINGTON (WUSA9) -- Just down the road in Gettysburg, PA nearly 300,000 residents and visitors are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. This battle not only had some of the largest death tolls, but Union victory here marked a great turning point in the war.

There were over 51,000 causalities in that three day period, however most were not due to immediate death in combat. In fact, the major killer of Union and Confederate troops was disease and infection. Specifically, Death from disease was about double those resulting from wounds.

During some of the early battles of the civil war wounded men were often left on the battle field for as long as two days before they were taken into treatment. If and when they were carried off the field the wounded were often transported on discarded gates or doors. This, of course, lead to the development of infectious disease and allowed for wounds to be contaminated.

The caring process for the wounded became slightly more efficient by the battles of Gettysburg. The fallen were removed from the grounds at the end of each day and taken to general hospitals.

Civil War era medicine mimicked the insanitary lifestyles of soldiers and over all medical knowledge of the day. During the battle of Gettysburg, the old dorm of Pennsylvania College, now known as Gettysburg College, was taken over and used as a confederate and union army war hospital.

The hospital attempted to treat common highly contagious diseases found on the war front such as dysentery, malaria, measles, typhoid fever, smallpox, and tuberculosis. Dysentery and Typhoid fever were spread by the insanitary lifestyles of soldiers. Because the soldiers were constantly on the move they were often drinking contaminated water, living in close quarters, and were exhausted and rundown. Their fecal matter was not usually disposed far from where they were living, so once one solider fell ill many others followed. This was also true with dieses such as measles and tuberculosis which are easily transmitted though airborne pathogens from coughing.

Doctors saw amputation as the best way to combat infection. While sometimes this did in fact save a soldier, it often lead to rapid spread of disease. Doctors sterilized amputation tools between uses by rinsing them under cold water. This may have removed physical traces of blood and puss but bacteria still thrived.

Since antibiotics were not invented at this time, the drugs doctors used on patients were limited to mostly symptom relief. Morphia, otherwise known as morphine, was one of the most popular drugs doctors gave patients shortly before amputation. While morphine adequately relieved severe pain, patients often became addicted and suffered intense side effects of withdrawal. Doctors often used Quinine which is a white crystalline alkaloid found in the bark of the cinchona tree. This could be used as a painkiller, anti-inflammatory, and a fever reducer. Chloroform was also popular and it was used for anesthetic purposes, but in some cases it actually caused death. Pepsin was given to patients with upset stomachs. Emetics and Cathartics induced the stomach and bowels and were thought to help get rid of bacteria and virus. Lastly, whiskey was commonly used to numb pain.

Mortality rates were incredibly high during the Civil War. This of course accounts for deaths during direct combat, but also accounts for the high rate of death during and after surgical treatment and due to spread of other types of infectious disease such as tetanus, gangrene, septicemia, and erysipelas.

Average mortality rate from gunshot wounds in the chest was 62% and 87% for the abdomen. Improvement in medicine directly correlates to the decrease rate of mortality in wounded soldiers over time. Less than 100 years later only about 3% of wounded soldiers in WWII failed to survive.

Courtesy: National Library of Medicine.

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