Thursday, August 16, 2012

Medicine in the Civil War: Part One - Doctors (Including Dr. McMeens of Sandusky)

At the beginning of the Civil War, medicine was in a transitional period. Before this time people did not have to go to medical school to become a doctor. They simply had to be a doctor’s apprentice for a period of time. In the 1860’s, medical schools were being founded. Doctors had to attend these schools and then be an apprentice for a time with an already practicing doctor in order to practice medicine. There were several Sandusky residents who were in the medical field during the Civil War. One of these was Dr. Robert R. McMeens (pictured below). He kept up a correspondence with the Sandusky Register describing battles and camp life until his death in late 1862, while serving in a Military hospital.

Shortly after the war started in 1861, Bellevue Hospital Medical College  in New York created a chair devoted to military surgery. The medical establishment knew that disease was the main culprit in war deaths. They wanted to create more qualified surgeons to prevent needless deaths. A handbook for military surgeons also came out around this time. The book was 120 pages long. However, people who wanted to become military surgeons still needed more training than the book offered. In an effort to recruit more surgeons, the Sandusky Register often published the location and times when the Military Surgeon Exam was offered. The paper also printed the requirements. The candidate had to be certified, in good standing, and have five years experience for a surgeon’s mate, and ten years of experience for a surgeon.

Union surgeons captured by Confederate forces were treated well and soon released. This was because the Confederate forces did not have the necessary accommodations to take care of the surgeons. The surgeons usually had their boots taken if they were in good shape. The Confederate army was not well supplied and usually took uniform parts from prisoners or the dead. When the war first started there was one surgeon in a regiment of twelve hundred men on both sides. There were female doctors in the Union Army, including Dr. Mary Edwards Walker. The Confederate Army had no female doctors.

The germ theory of disease had not yet been understood in 1861. Operations were done the same way they had been for the previous fifty years. Surgical instruments were dipped into well water and that was all the sanitizing they received. Wounds were sewn up with unsterilized silk. Sometimes surgeons would moisten the thread with saliva when threading the needle. Doctors would stick their bare hand in a battle wound to feel around for shrapnel or bullets. Because of these practices, death rates were high. For example, 87% of soldiers with abdominal wounds died, 60% with skull wounds died, and 62.6% with chest wounds died. Shoulder wounds were less often fatal, with a 33% mortality rate, and wounds that involved a broken bone usually led to an amputation. There was no anesthesia as we know it today. Whiskey was used to sedate people and help take away pain. It was also thought to help people get their senses back. Another problem was that disease transmission and prevention was not well understood, and many patients in the hospitals were there because they were sick, and not because they were wounded during a battle. Diseases swept through camps and killed soldiers who saw little fighting.

Many hospital workers would contract the illnesses of their patients. The author Louisa May Alcott caught an illness this way while serving as a nurse during the war, and Dr. McMeens caught dysentery while working in a hospital. Workers also suffered from exhaustion that required hospitalization. Dr. McMeens died in October of 1862. Originally attributed to heart disease, later it was believed that his death was caused by exhaustion. He as well as other doctors were known to work through the night treating battle wounded soldiers by candlelight. After his death, his wife continued on the mission of helping soldiers and became deeply involved in aid societies.

In addition to problems with medical supplies, and conditions in the camps, food was a constant problem for the Union forces in the Civil War. Northern rations were hardtack, beans, salt pork, and coffee. Everything was fried in bacon fat over a fire. Fresh local vegetables were rarely available because of price gouging by local farmers. Diet was something that was not always considered, so both sick and healthy people got the same rations. Union hospital staff would go out into the community to find donations of the proper nutritious food for the patients. Sometimes they would encounter Confederate sympathizers and be in danger of being shot at. People back home would be appealed to for supplies. Food problems accompanied by diseases spreading prompted Dr. McMeens to write this in a letter in 1862:
“Young volunteers who left home in robust health, who had comfortable homes surrounded by relations and friends, now on their way back mere skeletons of their former selves.”

To help with rations, notices were put in the Sandusky Register, asking community members to donate food to soldiers. They could drop them off with a member of a unit who happened to be in town. Potatoes, onions, sauerkraut, chicken, butter, and dried or canned fruit were all wanted. Doctors would ration these out to troops, and the soldiers who were in the worst shape received more rations. Dr. Sexton also put a notice in the paper requesting specific items. When rations were cut short the soldiers and hospital staff would hunt in nearby fields. Sometimes local people would come in and sell produce.

Multiple doctors from the area served in the Civil War. They helped soldiers from the area by having donation drives. Some died helping others after battle. They kept up correspondence with the newspaper about events. Patients were subjected to both new and old treatments. Doctors also struggled like the rest of the soldiers with illness, money, and the hardships of war.

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