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How the Civil War Revolutionized Medicine

Despite its barbaric reputation, medical care during the Civil War helped dawn a new era of modern medicine thanks to advances brought about in anesthesiology and organized triage. 

What’s the Big Idea?

Where do truly innovative ideas come from? While the poet might argue for divine inspiration, history gives us another story. Necessity being the mother of invention, wars have tended to require innovative solutions to the very unfortunate problems they create—privation, destruction and disease. Technological and medical innovations, first used to aid soldiers on the front lines, have subsequently come to assist civilian populations in their more civil lives.

What’s the Most Recent Development? 

What does Civil War medicine bring to mind? A ragged soldier biting a bullet rinsed in whisky while a surgeon brandishes a hacksaw? Medicine of 19th century America has a barbaric reputation compared to the sterile conditions in today’s facilities. Yet many modern medical procedures were born on Union and Confederate battlefields, says Michael Rhode, an archivist at the National Museum of Health and Medicine. “[Jonathan] Letterman, a medical director for the Union Army, created a well-organized system of care that began with triage close to the source of harm.” His ambulance system is essentially the one we use today.


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