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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Ironclad Fever: A Naval Surgeon's Civil War (Abstract)

By Sandra W. Moss


1866, young Dr. Edgar Holden of Newark (1838-1909), a recently demobilized medical officer
in the Union navy, published "An Inquiry into the Causes of Certain Diseases on Ships of War" in the American Journal of the Medical Sciences. The Index Catalogue of the Library of the Surgeon General Office lists but a handful of articles about Civil War naval medicine; The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion was compiled and published by the Army. Thus, Holden's article is quite valuable. In it, he described three apparently novel syndromes, including a condition which he called "ironclad fever."

The proposed paper begins with a description of Holden's experiences as a naval surgeon and the general health conditions aboard the first generation of Union ironclads. At the conclusion audience members will be invited to offer a modem perspective on Edgar Holden's series of "ironclad fever" cases.

Holden was a graduate of the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York (1860) and had the great good fortune to have studied physiology under John Call Dalton, America's first professional physiologist. Holden was better prepared than most young medical man who attended ante-bellum American medical schools. Perhaps the habit of scientific enquiry nurtured by Dalton prompted Holden to observe closely the apparently novel illness of seamen which formed the basis of his article.

A few months after graduation, Holden signed on as an Acting Assistant Surgeon in the Union Navy. His experiences and observations as medical officer of the Minnesota at the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack (Virginia), his harrowing brush with death aboard the ironclad Passaic in the storm which claimed the Monitor off Hatteras, and his grim sickbay duties aboard the steam gunboat Sassacus in the aftermath of the encounter with the Confederate "ram" Albermarle have not been previously researched.

The paper further explores the unhealthy conditions observed by Holden and others on the early ironclads. Faulty ventilation, noxious gases, unbearable heat, constant dampness, and oppressive gloom plagued the partly submerged and densely crowded vessels. Following the failed naval bombardment of Charleston harbor in 1863, Holden, surgeon on the ironclad Passaic, observed that conditions aboard the vessel "could not fail to enervate and sicken the healthiest crew."
Holden's 1866 article in the American Journal of the Medical Sciences described three previously unrecognized disorders. A fever attributed to fetid gas from a neglected bilge was thought by Holden to be due to mold. An outbreak of glossitis was traced by Holden to the presence of heavy metals in the ship's tobacco. Both these condition occurred on conventional vessels. The third syndrome, dubbed "ironclad fever," was apparently observed on several early ironclads by a number of naval surgeons. Of some 40 cases, Holden observed 10. The mortality rate was over 80%.

A retired internist, Sandra W. Moss has since last year's annual meeting of the American Osler Society now received her masters degree in the history of medicine from Rutgers University. Her research interests center on nineteenth-century American medicine and on the medical history of New Jersey. She is a past president and longtime program chair of the New Jersey Medical History Society.

Image: U.S.S. St. Louis, First Eads Ironclad Gunboat, Renamed the Baron de Kalb in October 1862

From:  websitesasksam.com


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