Civil War Book Review: Learning from the Wounded

Devine, Shauna. Learning from the Wounded: The Civil War and the Rise of American Medical Science. (The University of North Carolina Press: 2014). 384 pages, 3 tables, 26 halftones, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-1-4696-1155-6 $39.95 (Cloth). Note: Also available in Kindle format.

LearningFromTheWoundedDevine2014UNCPressLearning from the Wounded: The Civil War and the Rise of American Medical Science explores in depth how the experiences of army surgeons during the Civil War shaped American medicine for the last third of the nineteenth century.  Instead of using the Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, as many had done previously, author Shauna Devine utilized the same primary source material which the authors of that six volume work used, and she found something ground breaking.  The source material was so much more in depth than the Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion due to space concerns.  Suddenly, a war which has often been described as a medical nightmare took on new meaning.  Devine ultimately argues that the Civil War “created the context for the most significant medical experience of the nineteenth century in the United States and in the process set American medicine on a new course.”

Prior to the Civil War, American medical practice suffered from a lack of standardization or even qualification for prospective doctors.  The American Medical Association was formed in part to rectify the situation, but the Civil War occurred before any reforms could really take effect.  It was the Civil War, which presented challenges the American medical fraternity was completely unprepared for, which caused rapid advances in treatments and wide-scale adoption of the same.  Bodies were available on a wide scale, and patients were present in overwhelming numbers.  What started as simply an effort to reduce mortality rates from disease and wounds turned into experimentation and notation of wounds and diseases on a grand scale.  Surgeon General William Hammond played a large role in this widespread study of diseases and wounds by creating the Army Medical Museum and ordering surgeons to prepare reports on the effectiveness of various treatment methods.

The massive number of casualties and sick led to the development of new and more effective treatment methods as well as allowing doctors to specialize in various diseases and/or treatments.  The Civil War also brought up the question of who “owned” the dead bodies being produced in the thousands.  The Union Army argued that these bodies belonged to them, and much research was done on cadavers.  In turn, the existence of these bodies allowed thousands of doctors to actively practice anatomy, something which was severely lacking in pre-Civil War America.

Shauna Devine argues, and in my opinion argues successfully, that the wide scale sharing of causes and treatments for injuries and diseases through the Army Medical Museum and Army Medical School, and the encouragement for post war physicians to continue doing the same, significantly changed the American medicine for the better.

Learning from the Wounded: The Civil War and the Rise of American Medical Science will appeal to those interested in medical history, those specifically interested in how the Union Army reacted to overwhelming casualties and sickness, and anyone interested in the medical side of the Civil War.

This book was provided gratis for the purposes of this review.


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