Learning from the Wounded: The Civil War and the Rise of American Medical Science

Learning from the Wounded: The Civil War and the Rise of American Medical Science

Learning from the Wounded: The Civil War and the Rise of American Medical Science

Learning from the Wounded: The Civil War and the Rise of American Medical Science

Excerpt

I had sawn all across the forehead and then swept the saw gradually towards the temple. With the first full sweeps of the saw to and fro suddenly the patient loudly champed his jaws at us several times: My assistant instantly dropped the head and leaped backwards holding up both hands in horror and exclaimed “good god isn’t he dead.” My heart gave one great convulsive leap then stood still then began to beat at race horse speed while I was gasping for breath. … But a moment’s reflection explained the matter. I had failed completely to sever the fibers of the temporal muscles. … The body being absolutely limp from the absence of any rigor mortus, the lower jaw at the middle of its movements would drop only to snap vigorously against the upper jaw when the muscle was made taught again. In a few moments we had sufficiently regained our self command to realize that the man was surely already dead and to continue the post mortem, but it was with unsteady hands and perturbed minds.

In popular conceptions of the American Civil War, such a story, told by war physician W. W. Keen years after the conflict, seems to confirm the impression of Civil War medicine. It has become commonplace to associate this war with inexperienced physicians and surgeons hacking off limbs with unsanitized medical equipment while patients clamped down on bullets trying to suppress the pain. New estimates of the Civil War death toll, and how those men died, seem to support this impression. As many as 750,000 soldiers died as a result of the war, a number that would be proportional to 7.5 million people today. More Americans, in fact, died during the Civil War than in all other major wars combined, and two-thirds of these deaths were due to diseases like gangrene, pyemia, tetanus, diarrhea, and dysentery, some of which followed from wounds suffered in the war and others from unsanitary conditions.

The medical history of the war, captured in the letters, diaries, case histories, the medical and surgical specimens that were prepared, and the photographs of diseases and unique operations that were submitted to the new Army Medical Museum confirms the impression of a medical profession . . .

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