By Jake Hanson, 3-28-14
During the American Civil War, two-thirds of the 700,000 soldiers died, not from battlefield trauma, but from infections as a result of battlefield wounds. This means that though a man only took a bullet to his extremities—a hand or a foot—he had the potential to die from complications. The most dreaded of the diseases that could be caught was gangrene.
Confusion abounded about what it is and how to treat it. Indeed, in both the Union and Confederacy armies the mortality rate of soldiers who contracted gangrene was a dismal 45%. That is, if you got gangrene, you might as well flip a coin concerning your chances of survival.
We know today that gangrene is the result of microorganisms that dine on unhealthy flesh, and spread rapidly down the extremities and release poisonous gases as they go. They spread rapidly from person to person, and even from room to room.
Based on thousand year old treatment techniques for the condition from Classical times, Civil War medics treated infected soldiers by calming them with whiskey, giving them a balanced diet, debridement of dead flesh, and some form of topical treatments that had limited effectiveness and was often more harmful than helpful as in the case of the caustic nitric acid. And after treatment, medics would watch for ‘laudable pus’ which was erroneously believed to be a ‘sign of healing.’
In all, these treatments were ineffective and methods often unwittingly spread the disease throughout a hospital.
Dr. Middleton Goldsmith based in Louisville, Kentucky was Surgeon-in-Chief of all military hospitals in Kentucky as well as the Army of the Ohio. He was dissatisfied with conventional treatment and began to experiment with new ways to treat the condition. While he did not understand germ theory, which was currently being studied by Louis Pasteur, he understood the necessity of cleanliness in treatment which went a long way to the prevention of its spread.
The breakthrough for Goldsmith came when he began experimenting with bromine, a chemical element which he used aggressively to treat gangrene, first injecting it deep into infected tissue, then working his way out to a topical application. The result of his treatment was a drastic drop in the mortality rate from 45% to 2.6%. Goldsmith had found that the right medicine injected aggressively and rightly was the best way to treat this deadly disease.
The Apostle Paul writes in his second letter to his disciple Timothy that false teaching about Jesus spreads like gangrene—that is, it spreads aggressively. And without proper and aggressive treatment mortality rates increase. Just like Dr. Middleton Goldsmith found an effective way of treating gangrene, so also Dr. Paul gives us the way forward in treating the infectious disease of false teaching.
“Remind them of these things” writes Paul (2 Timothy 2:14). This is the medicine. What are ‘these things’? Paul just finished telling us the Gospel of Jesus Christ beginning in verse 8 that we are to remember Jesus Christ—Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who as John makes clear, “was God”(1:1) and this God “became flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14). Remember, Paul commands, Jesus who died for our sins, and rose up from the dead, and remember that He is the coming son of David whose reign will never end. And Paul continues to remind us that our salvation and life comes when we, by faith, die with Him, and we enter into eternal glory where we will reign with Him (can you imagine?) forever. This is all ours if we receive Him.
But, for those who reject Him (not those of us who have lapses in their faith), He also will reject us. An eternal and real rejection in hell.
Today, this teaching is being rejected, just as it was rejected in Paul’s day, and has been rejected ever since. We see it in the teaching that Jesus was just a good man, but not divine. We see it with those who reject the substitutionary atonement. We see it in those who teach that Jesus was not really resurrected from the dead. We see it in those who teach that we need not receive Jesus to be accepted by God. We see it when we hear that Jesus is but ONE way to God rather than THE way.
It does not take long to find these teachings. Open up a magazine article on Jesus this Easter season, watch a television show on the Bible, or enter into one of many churches around the country, and indeed the world, and you will find the epidemic of which Paul speaks—false teaching spreads like gangrene!
We tend to treat this disease in one of two ways. First, like the Civil War doctors treating gangrenous soldiers, some waited for “laudable pus.” “It’ll work itself out,” we say to ourselves. After all, false teaching has existed since the fall, but the Church still stands. But this lack of treatment fails to obey the commands of God: “Remind them of these things!”
The second way we tend to treat this condition is to, like some Civil War medics, throw caustic and abrasive acids on the wound, sometimes killing the gangrene, but taking out healthy flesh as well, bringing great pain and discomfort to those being treated. Often in our ‘prophetic’ voices we also pour acid on those infected by the gangrene of false teaching. Paul warns against this as well. “[Correct] those who are in opposition with gentleness” that “perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 2:24), knowing that those infected are not the real enemy, but the devil who holds them captive (vs 25).
But aren’t I being a bit drastic here? Insisting that Jesus is the ONLY way, that Jesus really was and is God who took on flesh, died for our sins and really rose from the grave and that only if we believe in Him can we be saved? Isn’t this the caustic acid of which I warn?
Dr. Middleton Goldsmith faced similar questions. Wasn’t pure bromine too strong? Here are his own words:
"Many of the surgeons had no experience in the use of the remedy [of using bromine]. They were imbued with the idea, prevalent in the profession, that this agent is a highly corrosive and irritating one; and hence, they almost uniformly used it, in the beginning, largely diluted with alcohol, water, or ether [. . .] As the surgeons gained experience with the remedy, they gained confidence in its efficacy, and learned that it was not the corrosive and irritating agent which they had supposed it to be.
"Isn’t that what the Gospel is? Good News, the remedy of our sin-sick condition, and also the remedy of false teaching? But we often want to water it down because we hear that it is highly corrosive and irritating, when in reality, it is the false medicine that is caustic.
"The use of this medicine does not guarantee, however, approval. Paul himself was imprisoned for this Gospel. And he promises us that we too may be rejected for giving the life-saving medicine."
Though a hero, Dr. Middleton Goldsmith was not treated as one after the war. Residents of Louisville, sympathetic toward the Confederacy, turned against him, and so he moved to Vermont where he consulted for difficult medical cases and lectured but never served in active medical practice again.
But his task was complete. He had found an effective treatment regimen for gangrene and it would never be treated the same way again. To do so would be folly.
So use the medicine. Remind them of these things, and nip gangrene in the bud!
Sources: Since I know next to nothing about gangrene, here are some sources I used concerning Middleton Goldsmith:
“Gangrene Therapy and Antisepsis Before Lister: The Civil War Contributions of Middleton Goldsmith of Louisville”
“Hospital Gangrene During The Civil War - Civil War Medicine by Dr. Scott Watson”