Modern Medicine and the Great War

USA TODAY, October 2017 | Go to article overview

Modern Medicine and the Great War


The Smithsonian institution's National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C., is commemorating the centennial anniversary of U.S. involvement in World War I with a series of exhibition displays (on view through January 2019) that explore the influential role of the war on American society: "Gen. John J. Pershing and World War 1,1917-18"; "Uniformed Women in the Great War"; "Advertising War: Selling Americans on World War I"; "Artist Soldiers: Artistic Expression in the First World War"; and "Modem Medicine and the Great War."

World War I remains one of the most devastating conflicts in human history, as millions of lives were lost across the four years the conflict raged, but it could have been worse if not for rapidly advancing medical technologies and techniques.

Prior to WWI, things like health standards and sterile operating procedures were not widely practiced; X-rays had yet to be invented; and antiseptics were dangerous and largely ineffective.

Thanks to innovative medical pioneers and in response to a desperate demand, medical practices that were developed during the war changed the country's approach to health care In ways that continue to affect us today.

Once the U.S. entered the war and instituted the draft, the military first needed to evaluate millions of men to ensure an acceptable level of physical and mental fitness using new scientific techniques to test and analyze America's draft-age population.

Related items in the collection include several photographs of soldiers in home-front facilities being subjected to a battery of new tests to quantize physical and mental aptitude--ensuring that they were as prepared as possible for the rigors of the front line.

The data these tests produced enabled the first large-scale studies of the health of the American people and provided evidence for theories regarding racial, ethnic, and regional differences--leading to new ideas about health standards and disease prevalence and prevention.

Once on the battlefield, doctors and nurses faced much more violent challenges. In a pre-antibiotic era, efforts to prevent infection were at the forefront of wound management. Explosive shells created deep, lacerated wounds and drove bacteria-rich soil into the body. Medical staff experimented with a variety of antiseptics and techniques and made liberal use of anti-tetanus serum--one of few treatments available that could target a specific infectious disease.

Adapting medical technologies to war work demanded special expertise and training. Scientists and engineers developed X-ray equipment and techniques suitable for war conditions. …

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