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Friday, May 10, 2013

Microscope Use in the Civil War

By Alfred Jay Bollet, M.D.

Civil War physicians routinely used microscopes to make diagnoses and to study the pathologic changes due to disease. Nevertheless, some historians have asserted that the "backward" Civil War physicians did not know how to use the microscope. Although it had been invented two centuries earlier, "the headquarters of the Army Medical Department did not have [a microscope] until 1863," and the Harvard Medical School catalogue didn't acknowledge possession of a microscope until 1869.

The truth is considerably different. The microscopic study of minute anatomic and pathologic tissue changes developed rapidly in the United States and elsewhere during the two decades before the Civil War. Oliver Wendell Holmes taught microscopy to medical students at both Harvard and Tremont medical schools from the 1840s on, using his own instruments and a set of slides he prepared himself. Medical schools usually did not own any microscopes, but the professors did.

Advertisements by microscope manufacturers appeared in the medical journals of the time. Several American scientific societies had sections devoted to microscopy, and at least one national society entirely devoted to microscopy was founded before the Civil War.

Excerpted from: Civil War Medicine: Challenges and Triumphs

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