Every day, we buy antacids and bottled water from local convenience stores and take for granted how easy it is to get vaccinated for the upcoming flu season.
But that was not the case for the millions of people in the 18th and 19th centuries who struggled with what we see today as simple illnesses to be treated.
In fact, more war casualties during this period resulted from post-battle infections than from injuries themselves.
The stress of war, however, tends to drive innovation, and during the American Wars, physicians pushed the boundaries of how to diagnose, treat, and prevent diseases that would otherwise have been fatal. It’s rare for a doctor to change a medical history forever, but these five military doctors have.
1. Dr Benjamin Rush
A signatory of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush wrote the first American manual of preventive medicine for military doctors. In 1777, during the War of Independence, his published works inspired George Washington to vaccinate the Continental Army with the smallpox vaccine. Since then, countless people have been successfully immunized.
2. Dr. Guillaume Beaumont
Known as the father of gastric physiology, William Beaumont served as a military surgeon at Fort Mackinac, then a violent battlefield on the Michigan-Canada border. In 1822, a Canadian named Alexis St. Martin entered the medical establishment with a gunshot wound to the stomach. Over the next 10 years, Beaumont would examine and observe Martin’s intestinal tract, becoming the first physician to document the digestive process live. This led to the discovery and treatment of several problems related to the stomach.
3. Dr. Walter Roseau
Army pathologist and bacteriologist during the Spanish American War, Walter Reed distinguished himself as a medical investigator, traveling to Cuba to research the spread of typhoid that affected thousands of soldiers in the region. His innovative tests led to the discovery of the origins of the disease and the development of a treatment for tropical disease.
4. Dr James Tilton
An American soldier, physician and surgeon general during the War of 1812, James Tilton commanded a number of hospitals in Morristown and Princeton, New Jersey. Concerned about the high death rate from illnesses contracted in hospitals, Tilton built wards with well ventilated ceilings known as “Tilton Huts”. These windowless huts were small buildings divided into three sections. Tilton did not allow the use of lumber during this construction because he believed the natural resource harbored infection, which virtually eliminated the spread of infectious disease.
In 1790, Congress passed Tilton’s Code of Regulations for the Army Medical Department, which redefined the way hospitals are built today.
5. Dr Carl Rogers Darnall
Serving as an operative surgeon and pathologist during the Spanish American War, Carl Rogers Darnall returned to the United States and taught at the Army Medical School in Washington, DC In 1910 Darnall invented the chlorine purifier mechanical liquid known as a “chlorinator”. This innovative technology removes harmful contaminants from the water, making it the world’s first water purifier.