11/15/05 - hospitals in war

In today's excerpt - a glimpse of hospital conditions in the American Civil War, where 30,000 men—or half of all those who perished in the entire Civil War—died:

"Whatever their design, the hospitals in Washington were places to be feared and despised by any soldier. Medical care in the early 1860s was not much advanced from the Middle Ages. The great discoveries in bacteriology and antisepsis by such European medical pioneers as Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch, and Joseph Lister were still a few years in the future. American doctors, by and large, were poorly trained and woefully under-equipped. (Harvard Medical School, for example, did not even own a microscope until 1869.) The cause and prevention of disease were unknown. Typhoid fever, malaria, and diarrhea, the three most prevalent and deadly killers of the Civil War, tore through every hospital and camp, spread by infected drinking water, fecally contaminated food, and disease-transmitting mosquitoes. Meanwhile, attending physicians ascribed the ills to such imaginative and fantastical causes as 'malarial miasms,' 'mephitic effluvia,' 'crowd poisoning,' 'sewer emanations,' 'depressing mental agencies,' 'lack of nerve force,' 'exhalations,' 'night air,' 'sleeping in damp blankets,' 'choleric temperature,' 'decay of wood,' 'odor of horse manure,' 'effluvia of putrefying corpses,' and 'poisonous fungi in the atmosphere.'

"Given such thinking, together with the endemic over-crowding and poor sanitary practices common to both armies, it is no wonder that Civil War soldiers were four times as likely to fall ill as civilians—and five times as likely to die if they did."


Roy Morris Jr.


The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War


Oxford University Press


Copyright 2000 by Roy Morris, Jr.


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