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Medical innovations and war

Blood transfusion apparatus, United Kingdom, 1914-1918

Blood transfusion apparatus, United Kingdom, 1914-1918

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Medical innovations and war

War is often associated with new discoveries in medicine. Some of these discoveries have been relatively small, but others have had a significant impact on our understanding of the body and the impact of the trauma of war on the mind and body. While doctors devise new methods of treatment, designers of weapons find new ways to injure and kill those involved in war.

The Napoleonic Wars: the winning lemon-juice cure

Some discoveries seem relatively simple. Drinking raw lemon juice as a way of avoiding scurvy was a great success. This assisted the British victory in the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15), as with lemon juice on board ships needed to land less frequently to take on fresh food to prevent the disease. Perhaps new medical knowledge on nutrition had assisted in winning a military battle.

New wounds, new science, new medical approaches

One of the issues for medicine was that it had to keep up with new advances in methods of killing. Swords and spears gave way to guns and cannons. The nature of wounds changed and with this the types of treatment that had to be developed to ensure a healthy fighting force. New approaches to deal with diseases that have historically been associated with the military presented another challenge for medical practitioners. The rise of scientific medicine in the late 1800s and its association with the prevention of disease, for example the use of mobile bacteriological units in the First World War (1914-18), lessened the effect of disease on the fighting forces.

Techniques to save lives


Certainly, on the front lines new medicines and techniques saved the lives of thousands of soldiers. New techniques and drugs, while not necessarily developed as a result of war, ensured that there were fit soldiers to fight. Prevention of blood loss through the use of tourniquets and ligatures, as well as amputation to prevent death by gangrene, was used as early as Roman times.

The Boer War and the First World War - bringing hospital equipment to soldiers

In the South African Conflict or Boer War (1899-1902) medicalised field dressings and X-rays were used, although initially the machines were large and cumbersome and could only be used in hospitals. During the First World War blood transfusions were performed in the battlefield, and saline transfusions for fluid loss were also used.

The Spanish Civil War and the Second World War - vaccines, transfusions and new drugs


In both the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and the Second World War (1939-45) vaccines for conditions such as tetanus were widely used. Blood transfusions also became common as a result of new techniques in blood storage. New drugs including the sulphonamides and penicillin were used for treating both wounds and venereal diseases. By the 1950s, the number of amputations was reduced during the Korean War owing to the expansion of new techniques in surgery on veins and arteries, or vascular surgery.

The lack of care for the general population in wartime

During war, medical practitioners’ attention was diverted from caring for the general population to ensuring that the military was fit enough to continue fighting for as long as it was required. Most developments in the military context were usually associated directly with war and had less impact on civilian medicine. There was little need for expertise in mass gas poisoning, injuries from grenades or the problem known as trench foot, except in conditions of war. In peacetime surgeons had more leisure to perform operations on civilians, certainly after reliable anaesthetics were developed during the 1800s. Certain branches of medicine, such as orthopaedicsplastic surgery and rehabilitation, benefited from the large number of war casualties and lessons learned under these conditions were applied to medical treatment for civilians in the 1900s.



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