When I think of the Civil War, I think of disease, death and filth. The reality is that there were quite a number of medical innovations to improve survival chances made during this terrible time. MacGyver would have been proud at the ingenuity of some of these doctors.
-A typical battlefield treatment for badly wounded limbs was to subject them to wound cleaning rats and maggots. The death rate was staggering. During the war, they discovered that if you quickly changed a complex wound to a simple one, the odds were definitely more in your favor. This typically was done within the first hour after injury and it helped prevent massive infections setting in.
**Side Story- A general who had his leg amputated above the knee sent his leg to the Army Medical Museum and visited it every year on its anniversary of being severed from the rest of the body. This wasn’t the only odd thing he did in his life. While serving in Congress, he shot the son of Francis Scott Key for sleeping with his wife. He was then the first person to be found “not guilty” by reason of temporary insanity.**
-Chloroform was a God-send. Unfortunately it was in short supply, especially for the Confederate army who were often cut off from supplies. The usual dose to put someone out was 2 oz. because the liquid would evaporate quickly on the folded cloth. Many men went through the amputations with nothing more than some whiskey and a branch to bite on. Dr. John Chisolm invented a type of inhaler that used a sponge inside a container to prevent the evaporation. It took the dose from 2 oz. to 1/8 of an ounce!
-In the beginning, ambulances were run by civilians who had little to no training and were often “drunks and cowards”. Jonathon Letterman, medical director of the Army of the Potomac, devised a brilliant system of getting the wounded off the battlefield and to safety. This is the beginning of our modern day ambulance-to-ER system. He even put in spring suspension and the drivers started carrying locked boxes of bandages, protein, bedsacks, and morphine with them to field dress wounds.
-A soldier who had pneumonia was successfully treated with mercury which led to gangrene.Eventually it took part of his mouth, his eye, and most of his cheek bone too.Dr. Gordon Buck experimented, in a series of operations, to put in facial implants to reconstruct his face. He also pioneered the use of tiny sutures to minimize scarring on this man.
-Benjamin Howard, a surgical assistant, invented a way to close sucking chest wounds without collapsing the lings which caused the patient to suffocate. In the early part of the war, only 8% of these wounds were survived. After his innovation, the rate quadrupled!