Civil War Medicine Quiz: The People and Innovations That Changed Medicine

Albert B. Lowenfels, MD


May 21, 2015

Image courtesy of Library of Congress

Union surgeons during the Civil War amputated about 30,000 limbs, compared with about 16,000 similar operations in World War II. One reason for the high frequency of amputations in this war was that the commonly used bullet, a "Minié" ball, was large and had a slow velocity. It shattered tissue and bone, yielding a complex type of injury that seemed best treated by amputation, especially for a surgeon with limited training and with an overwhelming patient load. Lister, who popularized antiseptic surgery, estimated that in England in1861, half of the patients undergoing amputation died of infection. It was only after 1865, when Lister learned about Pasteur's microbial research, that surgical infection rates began to decline. Unfortunately for thousands of Civil War soldiers, Lister's theory of antisepsis was simply not available during the Civil War.[4]


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