Primitive Medicine; How Did Surgeons Treat their Patients?

We are all aware of the casualties suffered throughout the Civil War. Now, if we break down the statistics, out of the approximate 620,000 soldiers that lost their lives, two thirds of these men (or women), died of disease. Poor hygiene, pestering insects, filth, overcrowding, unhealthy diets, unsanitary water, and exposure to all kinds of weather conditions were some of the factors that led to a rapid spread of disease.

Soldiers of today can find themselves under the same situations but they serve under the advantage of modern medicine, something that greatly lacked since the beginning of the civil war.

Why could the deaths of the men not be avoided? Well for starters, the Union and the Confederate armies lacked medical practitioners. Because of this, they were welcomed anyone that called themselves to be a doctor, regardless of their knowledge or experience. Some of these doctors carried around Dr. Samuel Gress’ operating manual. During a surgery, your surgeon would pause to read their manual in order to figure out how they will treat you. As you were left unattended for a few moments, your condition could become more life-threatening. Doctors were beginning to understand how to treat their patients under various conditions but were oblivious to the importance of sanitation. In one instance, General Carl Schurz described his experiences viewing surgical practice during the Battle of Gettysburg and said, ” There stood the surgeons, their sleeves rolled up to their elbows, their bare arms as well as their linen aprons smeared with blood, their knives not seldom held between their teeth, while they were helping a patient on or off the table or had their hands otherwise occupied.” Aside from this, some doctors did not disinfect their hands…or their instruments before or after tending a patient, moved on to their next patient, and followed this cycle – as a result, infections rapidly spread. There was great talk of laudable pus among doctors of the 19th century, they considered it to be a sign of recovery and consequently applied it to the bodies of other wounded or sickly men – transferring infectious diseases.

Most doctors became perplexed when they were to tend gunshot wounds. They gained experience as they worked with such types of wounds – surgical training was minimal. Gruesomely, doctors used their hands as an instrument to reach into a body in search for the bullet. In an attempt to save a life, doctors sometimes turned to amputating the infected area. Amputation was necessary in some cases, but soldiers often believed that in their case amputation was wrongfully done – creating distrust between the patient and their doctor. War doctors, were thus referred to as “butchers”. They used frightening tools (at least to me) to carry on an amputation. As an anesthetic, doctors turned to chloroform or other harmful drugs.

I found these medical procedures to be dangerous and gruesome but for the time being, these were some of the limited options medical practitioners could evaluate in order to save the life of their patients throughout the Civil War. However, we also have to reflect on the positive aspects of their actions. As inexperienced doctors, they gained vast knowledge that they later used to inform others of their findings. Today, we reflect on their mistakes and apply their knowledge to understand science beyond its boundaries. Some medical innovations include, an understanding of the human body (based on the determination of surgeons as to where to amputate a limb), medications (used for anesthesia), facial reconstruction, and the evolution of the means to transport civilians in need of medical attention. So, next time you visit the hospital, appreciate how well you are treated during your visit.




Author; Pearson Scott Foresman –

4 thoughts on “Primitive Medicine; How Did Surgeons Treat their Patients?

  1. I find it to be a great tragedy that most of the men in the Civil War died because of disease instead of fighting for their country and cause. Antibiotics weren’t put into wide use until World War II and because of that disease was an easy way to kill of soldiers. Also, many doctors were unclean and did not wash their hands, causing open wound to get infected. If only those doctors had washed their hands, then at least some of those men could have been saved.

  2. This is so tragic. I would be interested to see how different our nation would have been if the medicine and doctors were more advanced. One person can make all the difference if those even one of those 400,000 more soldiers lived, the war could have taken a different course, as could have had the country. This blog post is very well researched and written. It brings up a good point I would have not really thought about. It is crazy to think that it took until 70, 80 years ago to actually develop reasonable medicine. It’s interesting thinking about a world without properly trained doctors or proper medication. It’s obvious that wars would be fought differently and that the world would be a whole other place.

  3. The Civil War in nature was a gruesome and was an overall tragic fight. The fact that the lives of so many could have been saved had it not been for inexperienced doctors and feeble healthcare is alarming. This blog post gives us a better understanding of how far we have gotten in medical advancements since the Civil War. Though the soldiers took the fall, you correctly noted that the Civil War gave us many innovations that we see used today. I found it interesting to look at the Civil War through the lens of healthcare which is often an angle we seldom hear about. Nice job done.

  4. For the Civil War, to me it seems that all damage that was done spiraled into further terror and distress. To me it sounds like the doctors, while overall incompetent, were seen as a necessary evil. At first i was under the impression that they did not do more harm than good, but I am now unsure – While they may have performed necessary amputations to remove infections, the role they had in the spread of these infections may have outweighed the role they had in treating them. It seems to me that it was far easier to spread an infection than to treat it, and that their medical skills were completely inadequate to outweigh the possible consequences.

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