Wartime Medical Treatments

War and medicine go hand-in-hand.

Injury and illness are a side of war that none of us like to think about and the clearest sign of the brutality of conflict. As far as medicine and medical treatments go however, war has played an important part. For centuries, war has driven medical advancement and innovation, shaping the modern healthcare landscape. This progression is present as far back as the 15th century and continues today.

1487 First Use of Ambulances

The Siege of Málaga, during which Catholic
Monarchs conquered the city of Málaga and
overthrew Muslim forces, was the first conflict
in history to use ambulances, or dedicated
vehicles used for the sole purpose of carrying
injured persons.

1536 Ambroise Paré

One of wartime’s earliest innovators, and a man
who would influence the future work of
Christopher Wren and William Harvey, was
Ambroise Paré. A regimental soldier in the French
Army, Paré was responsible for several medical
breakthroughs, most notably his invention of the
ligature and use of ancient Roman
turpentine-based solution to treat wounds.

1653 Casualty Reception Stations Created

After the establishment of military hospitals in
1642, physician Dr Daniel Whistler and Nurse
Elizabeth Alkin introduced a number of
casualty reception stations to treat soldiers
injured in the First Dutch War.

1692 First Field Hospitals Established

During the Nine Years’ War, William III
established the English Army’s first field
hospitals. The mobile stations could be set up
close to battle to provide quick treatments to
sick and injured soldiers. Positions were also
created for physician generals, surgeon
generals and apothecary generals, which
greatly increased the delivery and organisation
of healthcare during conflict.

1752 Illness Prevention

Up until World War 1, illness and disease was
the biggest killer of soldiers on the battlefield,
which is something that armies were well aware
of. In his study Observations on the Diseases of
the Army in Camp and Garrison, Sir John Pringle
outlined innovative ways to prevent illness and
control disease and he became known as the
founder of modern military medicine. The book
covered ways to address ventilation problems,
advance rules for drainage, and adequate
latrines to improve sanitation. Pringle also
coined the term influenza.

1803 Triage Invented

The Napoleonic Wars introduced a brand new
practice in the form of triage – the
prioritisation of patients based on the severity
of their condition. Pioneered by Dominique
Jean Larrey, triage continues to be used today.

1847 First Use of Anaesthetic

A dental extraction carried out by navy
medical officer Thomas Spencer Wells is the
first recorded use of anaesthetic in the
military. Prior to the introduction of ether or
chloroform, patients had to simply cope with
the pain of surgery, using whisky or brandy to
help them through it. In this same year,
Russian surgeon Nikolay Ivanovich Pirogov
became the first to use anaesthesia in a field
operation during the Crimean War.

1857 Military Health Reformed

Following her role in improving hospital
conditions for soldiers during the Crimean
War, Florence Nightingale played an important
part in the introduction of hospital planning
and sanitation, as well as statistical analysis.
Nightingale also established a training school
for nurses, which helped to improve the
standard of care given in hospitals.

1914 The First World War

Due to improved medicine, better sanitation,
and casualty evacuation advancements, for
the first time in war the death toll in war due
to disease was lower than that of battle
injuries. However, an increase in weaponry led
to more horrific injuries. It was during this war
that maxillofacial and plastic surgery was
introduced. A young sailor from Plymouth by
the name of Walter Yeo was the first soldier to
receive plastic surgery in 1917. Sir Harold
Gillies used a ‘tubular pedicle’ technique to
retain blood flow while flesh from a healthy
area was grafted on to the injured area to
give Yeo new eyelids.
This same year, the use of a blood bank had a
great effect on medicine and the concept was
introduced to the civilian population in 1921.
Poison gas was also used for the first time in
war during WWI. Initially, the only protection
for soldiers against this deadly chlorine vapour
was cotton pads dipped in a bicarbonate soda
solution and held tightly over the mouth.
Later, soldiers were equipped with respirators,
which offered much better protection.
In 1915, Robert Jones, the father of British
orthopaedics, introduced the Thomas splint for
fractures of the femur. This invention helped
to greatly reduce mortality rate.

1936 The First Mobile Blood Transfusion

During the Spanish Civil War, Dr Norman
Bethune, a frontline surgeon for the
Republican government, developed the first
ever mobile blood transfusion service for use
in surgery for soldiers on the frontline. In a
cruel twist of fate, Bethune later died from
blood poisoning.

1939 The Second World War

During the Second World War, the introduction
of penicillin and antibiotics helped to reduce the
mortality rate of disease to just one in ten. The
greatest advancement in medical treatments,
however, came with the introduction of mobile
medical units, which allowed around three-fifths
of severely wounded soldiers to be operated on
within 12 hours.

1953 New Amputation Reduction Technique Introduced

During the Korean War, new methods in surgery
to repair damaged blood vessels in field
hospitals help to reduce the number of
amputees from 50% in WWII to 10% in Korea.

2003 New Life-Saving Equipment

Advances in medicine led to better treatment for
soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, reducing the
mortality rate. Blood-stemming products such as
the crushed shellfish-made HemCon bandage,
intraosseous needles, and improved vital signs
protocol have been of immense benefit.

2007 Soldiers Fitted with Bionic Limbs

Amputee soldiers were fitted with the latest in
bionic limb technology, including the iLimb
‘bionic hand’ which uses five motors to allow for
a more life-like grip and the CLeg computerised
leg, which is controlled by Bluetooth.

2013 New Antibiotic Drug Introduced

The introduction of arbekacin, a new antibiotic
treatment for multidrug resistant infections, is helping
to treat soldiers with life-threatening infections.