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Expert tries to dispel myths about Civil War medicine

George Wunderlich was a visitor at Saturday's Retreat Through Williamsport

July 13, 2013|By DON AINES | dona@herald-mail.com

WILLIAMSPORT — A scheduled demonstration on Civil War medicine did not occur as planned at Saturday’s Retreat Through Williamsport, but a number of people recognized an expert in the crowd.

George Wunderlich, executive director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Md., was at the event as a visitor on Saturday, but still found himself being pulled aside by other visitors to answer a few questions.

“There are a few misconceptions about Civil War medicine, things like biting a bullet because they didn’t have anesthetics,” Wunderlich said. “They had chloroform and ether, and both sides used it quite liberally.”

Besides, Wunderlich said, having a man bite a bullet while a limb was being amputated likely would result in the patient choking on it when he screamed in pain.

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“Doctors weren’t that dumb,” he said.

Amputations were not done out of medical ignorance of injuries, but because it was the best way to head off life-threatening infections in an era before antiseptics and antibiotics, Wunderlich said.

“Most people would probably believe more people died of bullets than disease,” Wunderlich said. In fact, two soldiers died of disease for each one who died of battlefield injuries, he said. That still was a vast improvement over the disease-to-wounds mortality rate of 8-to-1 for the British Army just a few years earlier in the Crimean War, he said.

Battle deaths would not overtake disease as the main killer of American soldiers until World War II, when antibiotics were available, he said.

During the Civil War, efforts were made, through organizations such as the U.S. Sanitary Commission, to improve cleanliness and living conditions in camps, hospitals and soldiers’ homes, Wunderlich said.

However, the numbers of combatants and animals involved in the Civil War made sanitation incredibly difficult, Wunderlich said. At Gettysburg, there were 165,000 soldiers and 30,000 horses and mules, he said.

Over three days, the bodies of thousands of soldiers and animals littered the battlefield, Wunderlich said.

The combinations of decaying corpses, human and animal waste, and festering wounds created ideal conditions for spreading diseases, particularly by the clouds of flies that flew from the living to the dead, he said.

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