Dr. Peter D’Onofrio speaks about Civil War medicine

Dr. Peter D’Onofrio in dress Union colonel uniform

On Wednesday evening, Dr. Peter D’Onofrio spoke to a full-capacity crowd about the many medical advancements made during the Civil War. Most of the improvements had to do with the organization of the military and provisions for wounded soldiers and veterans:

  • The Army organized an effective method to evacuate wounded soldiers which included an Ambulance Corp with professional wagon drivers with stretcher carriers and specially designed trains to transport soldiers to major hospitals for long term care and treatment.
  • The Army also developed a tiered system of care involving First Aid field stations, local hospitals, and finally large military hospitals with ample space and ventilation. This system allowed doctors to practice a simple form of modern triage and treat serious injuries within 24 hours.

The carnage of the Civil War also led to several discoveries that benefited the general medical community, especially in the area of cleanliness and surgery.

  • The first use of women nurses, which provided a home-like atmosphere during recovery
  • The wide use of anesthesia during amputations with a high success rate
  • The importance of cooking food properly to avoid disease and sickness
  • The identification of wounds requiring or benefiting from amputation
  • Surgeries done within 24 hours of wounding heal better than those done later
  • Developed method to seal sucking chest wounds
  • Although the discovery and acceptance of the germ theory is a few years away, doctors observed the benefits of boiling stitches, covering wounds with clean cloths, and proper hospital ventilation.

American doctors who served in the Civil War were able to contribute their discoveries and document specific medical cases in the Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, 1861- 1865. It was published in six volumes from 1870 to 1888 and contained many statistics and medical reports from Union and Confederate doctors. The volumes include information on a wide variety of subjects such as diseases, injuries, surgical procedures and instruments, transportation, and individual medical cases. These reports allowed doctors to share their observations and newly developed practices. It was considered a major contribution from American doctors to the medical profession and read widely by doctors in Europe.

Listen to a recording of the full lecture here.

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