It is said that every gray cloud has a silver lining. If the ugly behemoth that was the First World War has a silver lining, that silver lining is medical advances that came about as a result.
World War One was unique because, at the time, it was the most brutal war in human history. It also was the most technological. All the new killing machines led to appalling injury rates.
“These are weapons that reduced human beings to mist in some cases. They shear off noses and faces. They shred the extremities, they cause massive bleeding wounds in the stomach. They tear people into pieces,” Andrew Burtch, acting director of research at the Canada War Museum, told CTV.
However, as high as the casualty rates were, most of those who were wounded and lived long enough to receive medical care survived.
How is this possible in an age before antibiotics? All the modern medical advances. Let’s examine some of them.
Simple Advances Made a Big Difference
When was the last time you gave any thought to the splint? A splint developed by an orthopedist increased the survival rate for a broken thigh from 20 percent in 1914 to 80 percent two years later.
A system was developed for moving the wounded from the front. Men moved first to a field ambulance then a dressing station then a casualty clearing station and finally to a base hospital. At any point along the way, a soldier might be treated and then either moved on to the next step or back to his unit.
In addition to a system to move wounded from the field, triage was developed to assess who needed the most assistance and get him treatment quickly.
Blood transfusion had been invented before the war, but it wasn’t until 1917 that the first blood bank was created.
Advances Made Before the War
Some medical advancements were made not long before the war began. These played an important role in saving soldier’s lives.
- Portable x-ray machines
- Vaccinations for anthrax, cholera, rabies and typhoid
- Antitoxins for diphtheria and tetanus
- The identification of blood types
- The discovery that vitamin deficiency can lead to rickets and scurvy
Other medical technologies improved to meet the need of the disfigured:
- Plastic surgery: Once a means of fixing a broken nose, plastic surgery had advanced little until doctors needed to literally reconstruct soldiers’ faces. Techniques were developed for prosthetic faces and eyes. Techniques also were developed to supply blood to reconstructed body parts
- Prosthetic limbs: New types of prosthetic limbs were produced that were functional enough to allow men to return to work. They also were produced on a mass scale.
How long do you think it would have taken for these medical advances if it weren’t for the war? Leave a comment below.
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