Sunday, August 9, 2015

Dr. Bollet Discusses Rheumatoid Arthritis & The Civil War


According to Dr. Bollet from Yale University School of Medicine in "Rheumatic Diseases Among Civil War Troops," more than 160,000 cases of acute rheumatism were reported by Civil War soldiers, with chronic rheumatism being reported even more often, with about 246,000 cases having been reported. Additionally, over 12,000 soldiers were discharged early due to such severity in relationship to rheumatoid disease.

Rheumatoid arthritis can be extremely painful to those inflicted; even today, it is neither curable nor easily treatable. Therefore, around the time that Mr. Meyer would have contracted rheumatoid arthritis, there was little treatments available to help alleviate pain and allow for greater mobility. This eventually led to his temporarily re-location to a Veteran's Home in Indiana for a short while.

Unusually, the extent to which rheumatoid arthritis was being diagnosed in the Civil War leads us now to wonder if there were other causes or misdiagnoses that were being involved with developing a clear definition for what rheumatoid arthritis is. Dr. Bollet notes that "chronic rheumatoid arthritis is not known to "break out" in populations at an incidence anything like that which it occurred during the Civil War". Historians can question the validity to which the prevalence of rheumatoid arthritis existed in this time period, and maybe raise questions to why the diagnosis was more common then as compared to similar points in time.

Additionally, rheumatoid arthritis and the Civil War have another interesting connection. Robert E. Lee was notorious for having struggled with the disease himself for quite some time, as well as some of the soldiers he led at the time. Dr. Bollet reports that "on at least one occasion, Lee's arthritis affected his ability to lead his army, and may have indirectly influenced the outcome of a major battle. During May 1864, after the bloody fighting against the Army of the Potomac near Chancellorsville, in the area called the Wilderness, Lee was in so much pain from his rheumatism that he allowed himself to be taken for a brief reconnaissance mission riding in a carriage, rather than on horseback". Chronic rheumatism ended up causing Lee the development of other diseases later on in life, due to being at a higher risk and having to consistently deal with the flare-ups and gradual onset.

Chronic rheumatism was one of the leading causes of early discharge from the war and was in no way an unusual diagnosis amongst Civil War soldiers at the time period. Mr. Meyer's own struggle with rheumatism was likely a host of many factors that affected him in the Civil War experience time frame, where he was exposed to many physical challenges that over time affected his body.

Bollet, Alfred Jay. “Rheumatic Diseases Among Civil War Troops.” Arthritis & Rheumatism 34.9 (1991): 1197–1203. Web.

Photo: Portrait of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee in 1863, who also struggled with Rheumatoid Arthritis.


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