Changes in Medicine Due to Civil War

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As time goes on, many changes occur in different fields of science, technology, human service, media, and business. When looking back at the Civil War era, medicines used, and treatment of patients at that time, it is easy to see that the field of medicine has evolved greatly. From the remedies and medicines used to treat soldiers to the overall healthcare of people at that time, this field has developed new and better ways to care for those who are injured, sick, and dying. Are the changes that have happened involving medicine and the treatment of patients is one of the most dramatic changes in the history of our time?

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One thing that has changed over time is that whiskey and other forms of alcohol were used to treat wounds and disease … though of questionable medical value, whiskey did relieve some pain (Civil War Medicine: An Overview of Medicine | Ehistory). Today, medical doctors would not consider whiskey, or any alcohol, the answer to treating a wound or disease. Back then, for wounds, whisky was considered to have a cleansing effect, like the antiseptic of today. Additionally, it was used not as a remedy for a disease, but as a painkiller for the symptoms of wounds and diseases. Now, medical doctors and scientists have discovered medicines that help people relieve the pain they are having. Also today, a person can go to the store and buy over-the-counter medicines for colds and fevers. These medicines help to relieve the pain from symptoms of headaches, surgeries, diseases, etc.

During the Civil War, many people died due to diseases that the doctors could not treat because they did not have proper medicine to cure them. People were made comfortable through different techniques, however, cures for anything were few and far between. Today if someone goes to the doctor or hospital and is diagnosed with a disease, there is probably a form of medicine available to help them survive or at least live comfortably with the disease. Today, there are also new diseases for which they are still trying to find cures. Also, there are some diseases that are not yet curable like cancer. Some people argue that cancer existed back then but no one can be sure. Since having new, technological advantages now, scientists are working on a cures for things that in the days of the Civil War, were simply considered ailments that no one could survive.

Through the ages, the way technology changed in medicine is that back during the Civil War, they did not have what we consider technology today. More modern equipment that is capable of diagnosing a patients symptoms, blood tests that can look for abnormal levels of things in the blood, scans using radioactive energy all exist today. Doctors during this time use technology for everything; and back in the days of the Civil War, a doctor could only hope that the way a patient was treated would help assist them in getting better.

These days, a person can be put on a ventilator to help them breathe if they are in a coma or unable to breathe themselves. Also today, a persons heart beats per minute can be checked using monitors, cuffs, and other devices. In the days of the Civil War, a doctor or medic would simply time a persons breathing or feel for a pulse in the neck or wrist. Many times, soldiers who may have had a weak heartbeat due to injuries was left to die because a pulse could not be felt efficiently. More advanced equipment would not be invented for some time.

Nowadays, if a bone is broken or suspected to be broken, doctors can order an x-ray to see for certain if it is. An x-ray allows doctors to see the bones in a persons body through radiologic technology. If this scan does not give a good enough result, the doctors of today can order whats called a Computed Tomography or CT scan or even a Magnetic Resonance Image or MRI to get a more in-depth picture. During the time of the Civil War, they did not have the technology to be able to see inside a persons body, so they relied on amputations of body parts for most of the battle field injuries. Also, doctors had much less experience than they do now.

Doctors during the Civil War had to go to college for only about two years to become doctors. After the two years of college, they were able to perform surgeries by themselves. Also, the doctors lacked the ability to get most soldiers off the battle ground, and the hospitals lacked the sterile surroundings that they have now (Reilly). They often used knives as scalpels to cut people open. The knives they used were more than likely also used on other soldiers with injuries. Handwashing was something that, if a doctor was working in a hospital-like environment, could be done, but was not thought of as drastically important as it is now. When a doctor or a medic was working on a wounded soldier, they went from one person to another person without ceasing, causing infections to their patients. Todays doctors, before even having the chance to see a patient, have to go to four years of undergraduate school, have to take four more years of medical school, and then finally they have about seven years of interning to do in a hospital. Also, today they have to be really sterile to practice medicine. The doctors have to wash their hands before and after touching a patient because, over time, germs that live on a person and even in our environment have been discovered to cause havoc to a person that is sick, injured, or diseased. If a doctor is a surgical physician, they have to use a scalpel only once during surgery.

During the Civil War, general anesthesia was a new concept in medicine, so barely anyone had known how to use it. Instead of putting patients to sleep, the doctors would give them a dirty towel to let the patient bite down on during surgery. Also, they would have to hold down the patient because of how bad it hurt them to have surgery done with them awake. Today, of course, that is not the case. Modern medicine allows a person to sleep through any type of surgical procedure. From the extraction of a tooth to a major operation, a patient is put to sleep using intravenous anesthesia. In some cases today, people may wake up during surgery or may their body may not respond well to the anesthesia. For this reason, there is a person there called an anesthesiologist that is specifically giving people the correct amount of anesthesia and monitoring that persons vital signs for any type of negative effect. If anything goes wrong within a patients body during surgery these days, the specially trained people who assist in surgeries relay that information to the surgeon so that added steps can be taken to keep the patient asleep and responding well.

With the examples given, it is easy to see that there have been many advances in the medical field since the days of the Civil War. From medicines, tools of the doctors, technological equipment, and even schooling for doctors, the advances that have been made are some of the most important for treating people with almost any type of injury or condition. On or off the battlefield, where many soldiers died of germ contamination, internal injuries, or simply thought to be dead, doctors are now able to understand the importance of sterile environments, the use of internal imaging, and monitoring for vital signs. People are now living longer, healthier lives, even in the face of war; and all this is due to the advances that have been made in the medical field. This is the reason that this writer believes, and everyone should believe, that the changes that have happened involving medicine and the treatment of patients is one of the most dramatic changes in the history of our time.

Works Cited

  1. Archives.upenn.edu. (2018). Medical Class of 1889, Historical Development of Curriculum,
    University of Pennsylvania University Archives. [online] Available at: https://www.archives.upenn.edu/histy/features/1800s/1889med/curricdev.html [Accessed 19 Oct. 2018].
  2. Civil War Medicine: An Overview of Medicine. Tripler’s Report on Sanitation in the Army of
    the Potomac | EHISTORY, Ohio State University, ehistory.osu.edu/exhibitions/cwsurgeon/cwsurgeon/introduction.
  3. Reilly, Robert. “Medical And Surgical Care During The American Civil War, 1861“1865”.
    Pubmed Central (PMC), 2018, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4790547/. Accessed 17 Nov 2018.
  4. Williams, Mary. “Medicine In The American Civil War”. Cprcertified.Com, 2018,
    https://www.cprcertified.com/medicine-in-the-american-civil-war. Accessed 19 Oct 2018.
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Changes In Medicine Due To Civil War. (2019, May 15). Retrieved December 5, 2022 , from
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