He Ran Out of Cauterizing Oil, and It Changed Medicine

A look at battlefield medical innovations
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 19, 2017 9:32 AM CST
From the Bloody Battlefield, Death—and Medical Innovations
An etching showing Ambroise Pare.   (WikiMedia Commons)

We have the Civil War to thank in part for America's embrace of embalming—the practice gained popularity as it was the only viable way to preserve the bodies of fallen Northern soldiers for the long journey home. At STAT, Leah Samuel echoes that idea: that the battlefield has served as a scene of devastation, but also innovation, from a medical perspective. The injuries can be extreme, and the available tools are often no match for what's found in a brick-and-mortar hospital. That's led to what she writes are six practices that began amidst war but were successful enough to find their way into our hospitals. Here are three standouts:

  1. Tying off: The Romans and Arabs staunched blood loss by "tying off," that is, using a rope or belt to stem blood flow. But as Samuel writes, the practice's popularity decreased over the years and was replaced by alternatives like "cauterizing wounds with boiling oil"—not a simple battlefield practice. During 1537's Siege of Turin, French surgeon Ambroise Pare ran out of cauterizing oil, per a Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine article, and "made his break": He began instead to use ligatures to stop the flow of blood.
  2. Antibiotics: Antibiotics weren't created for war, but the mass production of them occurred because of it, writes Samuel. WWII saw Pfizer crank out penicillin, initially for use by medics. Sulfanilamide, which can treat bacterial infections like streptococcus, was carried in WWII soldiers' first-aid kits in a powdered form.
  3. Reconstructive plastic surgery: Credit the experience of a 20-year-old Civil War soldier for putting us on the path to where we are today. Per the National Museum of Health and Medicine, Carleton Burgan's pneumonia was treated with a mercury-based drug that caused an ulcer to form on his tongue; it spread across his face and became gangrenous, requiring his right cheekbone to be removed. A New York surgeon named Gurdon Buck made use of dental and facial fillers that took the place of the missing bone as the face reclaimed a more normal shape. The museum describes it as the first "total facial reconstructive surgery."
Read the full list of innovations here. (More surgery stories.)

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