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, it’s the medical advances that came as a result. (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.)
World War I, at the time, was the most brutal war in human history as well as the most technological. The new killing machines led to appalling injury rates.
“These are weapons that reduced human beings to mist in some cases,” Andrew Burtch, acting director of research at the Canada War Museum, told CTV. “They shear off noses and faces. They shred the extremities, they cause massive bleeding wounds in the stomach. They tear people into pieces.”
Despite the high casualty rates, most of the wounded who lived long enough to receive medical care survived.
How is this possible in an age before antibiotics?
Simple Advances Made a Big Difference
When was the last time you gave any thought to the splint? A splint developed by an orthopedist during the war increased the survival rate for a broken thigh fracture from 20 percent in 1914 to 80 percent in 1916.
An efficient system moved the wounded from the front. Stretcher bearers carried men from the field and took them to first aid stations. Wounded were moved then to a field ambulance followed by a dressing station, a casualty clearing station and finally a base hospital. At any point along the way, a soldier might be treated and sent back to his unit. More serious cases proceeded to the next step.
In addition, triage was developed to assess who needed the most assistance. Triage ensured serious cases were treated quickly and before other patients.
Blood transfusion was invented before the war, but the first blood bank was created in 1917.
Advances Made Before the War
Medical advancements made not long before the war also 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 because doctors treated a high volume of disfigured patients.
- Plastic surgery: Once a way to fix a broken nose, plastic surgery had advanced little before the war’s start. Soon, doctors needed to literally reconstruct soldiers’ faces. Techniques were developed to build prosthetic faces and eyes, and 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 were produced on a mass scale.
If you enjoy medical history, I invited you to visit my Pinterest board World War 1: Medical Care.
Header photo source: BBC Guides
Updated: 16 October 2020