2011-04-28 / Local & State

Pa. Museum Displays Civil War-era Medicine

By Daniel Patrick Sheehan
THE (ALLENTOWN) MORNING CALL

BETHLEHEM, Pa. (AP) – Nothing like the sight of a bone saw to cut the romance from your Civil War dreams. After all, the last full measure of devotion takes on a new shade of meaning when you imagine a soldier enduring a battlefield amputation, then dying of infection.

Such was the state of medicine when the Union and Confederacy clashed in the nation’s deadliest conflict. As Bethlehem marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the war, a modest exhibit at the 1810 Goundie House hints at the horrors that awaited the sick and injured of those days.

The exhibit, which runs through January, is tellingly called “Kill or Cure: Medicine in the 19th Century.’’ It centers largely on the apothecary talents of Bethlehem’s Moravians, but includes a few chilling reminders that we are lucky to live now and not then, at least from a medical perspective.

“What’s not well known is that two-thirds of the casualties in the Civil War were not due to combat,’’ said Jeffrey Jahre, chief of the department of medicine and infectious disease specialist at St. Luke’s Hospital & Health Network. “ Twothirds of the mortality was due to disease ... Infection played an enormous role in the war.’’

Jahre, who frequently lectures on the topic, said germ theory – the idea that disease spreads through microorganisms – was still more than a decade away from development when the war broke out. So it wasn’t uncommon for a battlefield surgeon to clean his scalpel on his boot before moving on to the next patient, or to reuse soiled bandages.

The war also coincided with advances in weaponry. Armies were equipped with more accurate and powerful rifles capable of extraordinary damage to flesh and bone.

“The only real (medical) advance doctors in the Civil War could take advantage of was anesthesia,’’ Jahre said.

Soldiers were also stricken down far from battle, victim to diarrheic illnesses, measles and other conditions exacerbated by poor nutrition and filthy camp conditions.

The war, as wars tend to do, propelled some advances in medical treatment. It led to the development of the triage system – in which casualties are addressed in order of severity – and of ambulance and nursing corps. And even without the germ theory, doctors recognized that disease outbreaks were worse in dirty conditions, so efforts were made to clean camps and improve nutrition.

Within 20 years of the war, the germ theory had been widely accepted. One of the exhibits at the Goundie House is a container of Vapo-Cresolene, a whooping cough remedy from 1880. One side of the box bears a brief explanation of the idea that diseases are generated “by the agency of bacteria and other low forms of life.’’

That nod to science is absent from some of the other remedies. Advertisements for Burdock’s Blood Bitters (‘’Invalid ladies, this is for you’’) and Perry Davis’ Vegetable Pain Killer exude more snake- oil dubiousness than nostalgic charm.

“Some of it was pretty scary stuff,’’ curator Amy Frey said. “Opium was in pretty much everything.’’

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