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Civil War Medicine at CHF Science Fair

Robert Hicks in period costume.

Robert Hicks in period costume, through the lens of period photography. Image courtesy Dr. Hicks.

It’s First Friday at CHF, and we’re ready to celebrate with “Stars, Stripes, and Science,” our annual science fair. We know, of course, that the July 4th holiday commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence – just down the street from our building, as it happens. But this year we are commemorating another important anniversary in American history: the sesquicentennial (150 years, if your Latin is rusty) of the American Civil War.

Dr. Robert Hicks, Director of the Mütter Museum, will be at today’s science fair – in period costume! – to talk about medical practices during the Civil War and show related artifacts from the time period. In 1861, when the war began, training for doctors was minimal and surgical procedures were unskilled at best. The medical corps on and around the battlefields found themselves understaffed and lacking in critical supplies to take care of the injured; soldiers who did not die of their injuries were likely to succumb to infection, and disease ran rampant through both the Union and the Confederate armies. Ultimately, more than 600,000 soldiers would die in the 4 years of the war, more casualties than all other American wars combined.

Health sciences, however, experienced enormous advances during the same period, chiefly in response to wartime needs. The medical field was entirely reorganized, which included the creation of an ambulance system, the development of more effective hospitals, and the birth of the nursing profession. Government-sponsored pharmaceutical research and manufacturing led to improved medicines and vaccines.

Perhaps the most important scientific advancement during the Civil War, however, was a greater understanding of the link between disease, cleanliness, and nutrition. This shift toward studying the cause of illness has led many to argue that the war led directly to the birth of modern medicine in the United States (united once more in 1865). Chemical Heritage will feature a story by Dr. Hicks on this very topic in the fall, but if you can’t wait for September, stop by CHF this afternoon – and appreciate the history and science around your holiday. (BBQs and fireworks? All thanks to chemistry.)  

Gigi Naglak is Outreach Coordinator at CHF’s Eddleman Institute. Stars, Stripes and Science will take place today, from 1:00-8:00 p.m., at CHF. The event is free and open to the public.

Related:
Painless Dreams [Chemical Heritage]
How the Civil War Changed Modern Medicine [Discovery News]

Posted In: Education | History

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