Civil War Medicine: The Documentary Series, is the story of remarkable American heroism and ingenuity at a time when the technology of warfare exceeded the science of medicine.
Operating in the smoky fog of a brutal war, thousands of doctors began their practice of medicine overwhelmed and ill-equipped. They had no antibiotics, no sterilization, and sometimes, no supplies. But by the end of their war service, they had not only helped to heal a nation, they had established revolutionary systems for effective healthcare.
Those medical personnel and volunteers had created a legacy that extends not just to modern war zones, but to every medical school, emergency room and hospital in the world today. Civil War Medicine, a new documentary series now in production, brings a fresh perspective to one of the most revolutionary periods in war and in medicine.
In 1861, medical care in the United States was very limited:
• Most American physicians had never performed surgery or even seen gunshot wounds before.
• The Army had no ambulance corps, no nursing corps and no dedicated medical supply transport.
• Women were refused admittance to most medical schools.
• The health of the individual soldier was not regarded as the responsibility of government.
Civil War Medicine illustrates how remarkable leadership, innovative government policy and a huge volunteer effort changed the quality and nature of health care in America. By the end of the war, systems were in place for ambulances, supply transport, case histories and follow-up. Women appeared on battlefields, in hospitals and in business. The hospitals themselves were redesigned and specialty hospitals designated, including one for the new study of neurology.
Advancements in medicine during the Civil War were not all clinical. The true medical legacy of the war developed from a changing culture of health care: medical administration, record-keeping and governance. It came from the recognition of the importance of sanitation, hygiene and diet, evacuation systems and skilled nursing care. It came in the emergence of women in administrative roles, and in the form of the Geneva Convention and the International Red Cross.
The legacy of the war includes research and educational facilities. The compiled data, published in the six-volume Medical Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, was regarded as America’s most important contribution to medicine in the 19th century.
Today, any American who has made a trip to the emergency room, been transported by ambulance or been attended to by a skilled nursing staff, has benefited from the legacy of Civil War medicine. Our modern health care systems evolved from this last great conflict fought without knowledge of the causes of disease or infection.
Graphic: Lisa Bollinger