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Treating infection

Soldier in a water-filled trench, France, c. 1917.

Soldier in a water-filled trench, France, c. 1917.

Credits:Science Museum, London/SSPL

We have all probably experienced a small infection when we have cut a finger, as it is easy for a cut to get infected. During wars, wounds from all kinds of weaponry can tear parts of the body open, exposing it to all kinds of infection. It was important for wounds to be clean. Cross-infection could be prevented by keeping all soldiers with the same type of illness or wound together.

Sir John Pringle wrote Observations on the Diseases of the Army in Camp and Garrison (1752) and demanded cleaner accommodation, smaller groups of patients and fresh air for the sick, which he noted when he inspected a hospital and saw the benefits of a broken window.

During the First World War many soldiers died of infection. In particular they suffered from trench foot, an infection caused by standing for hours in waterlogged conditions. Many had to have limbs amputated as they had become infected, and were at risk from dying of gangrene. Developments in drug therapy such as the sulpha drugs in the 1930s and penicillin in the 1940s helped to combat the rates of infection in the Second World War. In the later years of the conflict, 95% of Allied troops were saved if they managed to reach hospital.



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