Symposium Spotlight: What If… The Army Medical Museum and Medical Professionalism

With less than three months remaining until our symposium, several of our authors will further explore topics relating to their ‘What If’ theme. Today, Jon Tracey further explores Civil War medicine at the Army Medical Museum…

Civil War medicine brings to mind the idea of the overwhelmed country doctor not knowing what to do when faced with the grisly aftermath of battle. Perhaps they then started sawing away at limbs when it wasn’t necessary, disabling or killing a soldier that would have lived otherwise.

But what if it wasn’t as bad as we think?

The grisly exhibits of the Army Medical Museum displayed in Ford’s Theatre after the war. Library of Congress.

First off, the vast majority of surgeries performed during the war, even post-battle amputation, occurred under the use of anesthetic. Though the image of untrained doctors unfamiliar with the wounds of war may ring true at the beginning of the war, by the end of the war the United States Medical Corps consisted of trained, efficient, and successful doctors. This transformation was due to increased professionalism in the field of medicine during the war, which is reflected in several developments such as the Army Medical Museum.

As the Civil War began, doctors struggled to adapt to new types of wounds. In the words of historian Margaret Humphreys, doctors had to “invent an army medical system with little prior experience and few concrete models to draw from.”[1] As battles grew in scale, the situation looked dire, and medical care at First Bull Run was chaotic at best. Examples set by the Crimean War failed as the Civil War proved much larger. Doctors simply lacked the experience and resources necessary to carry out their tasks. After all, gunshot wounds were rare for the civilian doctor, occurred in the hundreds or thousands during a battle. Although some publications were issued to civilian doctors that entered the service, they were by no means detailed enough.[2]

In May 1862, Surgeon General William Hammond issued Circular No. 2 to attempt to address these weaknesses, especially the lack of knowledge about battlefield injuries:

Circular No 2.

Surgeon General’s Office

Washington D.C., May 21, 1862

As it is proposed to establish in Washington, an Army Medical Museum, medical officers are directed diligently to collect and to forward to the office of the Surgeon General, all specimens of morbid anatomy, surgical and medical, which may be regarded as valuable; together with projectiles and foreign bodies removed, and such other matters as may prove of interest in the study of military medicine or surgery. These objects should be accompanied by short explanatory notes. Each specimen in the collection will have appended the name of the Medical Officer by whom it was prepared.

WILLIAM A. HAMMOND, Surgeon General. [3]

This order created the Army Medical Museum and outlined the standard documentation necessary to describe a case. This new institution would collect medical records as well as physical examples of diseased or wounded bone, tissue, and organs from those afflicted. In some cases the specimens came from deceased soldiers, while in other cases they were removed from soldiers who survived. Regarding issues of ownership, the Army Medical Museum argued that the Federal government owned soldiers’ bodies during enlistment as well as appealed to patriotism by arguing that the specimens could continue to serve the nation by furthering medical knowledge.[4]

Major General Daniel Sickles was one of the museums most famous patrons. He often visited in order to see the remains of his leg, amputated due to a wound at the battle of Gettysburg. National Museum of Health and Medicine.

The Army Medical Museum existed to compile written records and physical examples so that doctors could learn from the successes and failures of their counterparts. As an aside, it later became a sizeable and morbid attraction for the public to visit. By the end of the war, the collection numbered over 4,700 specimens and moved to Ford’s Theatre, where Abraham Lincoln had been shot. In 1871, it boasted annual visitation of nearly 18,000 people, including doctors, veterans, and the general public.

Records and case studies submitted to the Surgeon General were later compiled and published in the expansive Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion. In this way, doctors could gain recognition for the cases they treated, and the information could be more broadly shared. It was widely disseminated, and in 1870, a Parisian doctor remarked, “the United States has done as much in the matter of an anatomical-pathological museum in five years as has been done in all Europe in a century.”[5] The United States was no longer reliant on the Revolutionary War era medical techniques of Benjamin Rush; it was on the cutting edge of successful medicine.

Doctors and surgeons during the Civil War had to learn lessons about successful treatment through bloody experience. However, they did learn these lessons and then spread that knowledge through institutions like the Army Medical Museum. They steadily improved their practice, and the records compiled by Circular No. 2 made a major impact on the successful treatment of both diseases and wounds. The hospitals found by 1863 onward were a marked improvement over those of 1861, and these lessons meant soldiers were treated better and had a higher chance of survival.

One can only imagine the horror if these lessons were never learned and the aftermath of every battle looked like the wreckage of First Bull Run.



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[1] Margaret Humphreys, Marrow of Tragedy: The Health Crisis of the American Civil War (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 7.

[2] Ibid, 30.

[3] John H. Brinton, Personal Memoirs of John H. Brinton: Civil War Surgeon, 1861-1865 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996), 180.

[4] William Feeney, Manifestations of the Maimed: The Perception of Wounded Soldiers in the Civil War North, Dissertation, West Virginia University, 2015, ProQuest, 176-177.

[5] Morris C. Leikind, “Army Medical Museum and Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Historical Perspective,” The Scientific Monthly, vol. 79, no. 2, (1954), 74.

8 Responses to Symposium Spotlight: What If… The Army Medical Museum and Medical Professionalism

    1. Yes, both the National Museum of Health and Medicine (the successor to the Army Medical Museum) and the National Museum of Civil War Medicine are absolutely worth a visit.

  1. Could you expound on the recognition of germ and bacteria infection and the gaining knowledge of clean surgical environments during the Civil War?

    1. Ed,

      Sure! Though they didn’t know about germ theory, sometimes they made decisions that helped combat those problems through trial and error. Two that come to mind are these: they worked very hard to establish ventilation in tent hospitals as well as the slowly constructed buildings. That certainly helped. Then, with “hospital gangrene”, they began treating it with bromine. Bromine is very similar chemically to antiseptics used today, and when they switched to bromine mid-war cases dropped so much as to almost disappear in established hospitals.

      1. The recognition that bacteria caused infections was not recognized during the Civil War.
        Joseph Lister performed his first operation with aseptic technique using carbolic acid in 1867. Asepsis in surgery as practiced by Lister was not fully accepted in the United States until the 1880s.
        The use of rubber gloves and surgery did not begin until the 1890s.

      2. Yes, that’s why I said that despite not knowing about them, they still made some decisions that helped combat germs and bacteria. It still was far from ideal – dirty ands and dirty tools in many cases – but there was still marked improvement during the war. It shaped the American medical profession for the rest of the century.

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