While a broken bone today can be a nuisance, in the early 20th century, it would be a serious, if not deadly, injury. (This post is a companion piece to Melina Druga’s WWI Trilogy, Angel of Mercy, Those Left Behind and Adjustment Year, available wherever eBooks are sold.)
People knew from ancient times to immobilize broken bones with a splint or a brace. Later, bone setters were used to move the bone into place before immobilization. The location of the fracture determined how difficult, and how painful, the procedure would be.
Wrapping the bone in plaster began in the 18th century. Limbs were often put in traction, pulling the bone back into place, before being set.
Soldiers who were shot in the femur suffered an 80 percent mortality rate at the beginning of World War I. Techniques used for fracture treatment, such as the use of antiseptics and stabilizing wounds before transport, reduced the mortality rate to 20 percent by the war’s end.
Surgery was a worse-case scenario and generally was reserved for open fractures and severe compound fractures.
Amputations had a 75 percent mortality rate in the 18th century. Infection was the main cause of the high mortality. Methods of controlling bleeding often led to other severe problems that caused death.
Even those who did not have their limbs amputated, but suffered from severe factures, often died of infection.
In the 19th century, wires, metal plates and screws began being used to stabilize some fractures. The use of these instruments greatly reduced the need for amputation, but increased the rate of those who survived with a limp or physical deformity.
Updated: 26 October 2020