Of Wards and War: The Importance of Good (and Bad) Medical Care in the American Civil War )


Location: 119 O'Shaughnessy Hall

Margaret Humphreys, professor of the History of Medicine, associate professor of Medicine, Duke University

During the crisis following the Haitian earthquake of 2010 one physician commented that “we’re practicing Civil War medicine here,” referring to the absence of supplies and primitive environment of care. Actually, the well-run Civil War hospital offered superior care to that possible in quake-ravaged Haiti. This paper will outline the components of the best and worst of Civil War medicine, and argue that the conditions in southern hospitals were so far inferior to those of the north that it probably made a difference to the war effort. In the northern hospitals men shot rats as a target practice game; in the south they roasted them for lunch. Important aspects of the best care were nutritious food, medicines such as chloroform, quinine, and opium, and sufficient staff to ensure cleanliness and care of the weakened or wounded body. It is difficult to assess hospital outcomes due the quality of the data, but what information is available indicates that the disparities between northern and southern hospitals were a factor in the manpower issues that dominated the war’s final years.

Sponsored by the John J. Reilly Center