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Friday, August 2, 2013

The General Who Visited His Leg

From: MentalFloss.com


The old battlefield technique of trying to save limbs with doses of TLC (aided by wound-cleaning rats and maggots) quickly fell out of favor during the Civil War, even for top officers. The sheer number of injured was too high, and war surgeons quickly discovered that the best way to stave deadly infections was simply to lop off the area—quickly.

Among those saved by the saw was Daniel E. Sickles, the eccentric commander of the 3rd Army Corps. In 1863, at the Battle of Gettysburg, the major general’s right leg was shattered by a Confederate shell. Within the hour, the leg was amputated just above the knee. His procedure, publicized in the military press, paved the way for many more. Since the new Army Medical Museum in Washington, D.C., had requested battle-field donations, Sickles sent the limb to them in a box labeled “With the compliments of Major General D.E.S.” Sickles visited his leg yearly on the anniversary of its emancipation.

Amputation saved more lives than any other wartime medical procedure by instantly turning complex injuries into simple ones. Battlefield surgeons eventually took no more than six minutes to get each moaning man on the table, apply a handkerchief soaked in chloroform or ether, and make the deep cut. Union surgeons became the most skilled limb hackers in history. Even in deplorable conditions, they lost only about 25 percent of their patients—compared to a 75 percent mortality rate among similarly injured civilians at the time. The techniques invented by wartime surgeons—including cutting as far from the heart as possible and never slicing through joints—became the standard.

As for the nutty-sounding behavior of the leg-visiting commander, Sickles can be justifiably accused. In 1859, while serving in Congress, he shot and killed U.S. Attorney Philip Barton Key, the son of Francis Scott Key, for sleeping with Sickles’s wife. Charged with murder, Sickles became the first person in the United States to be found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity.

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