Revisited Myth # 103: Civil War soldiers underwent surgery with no anesthesia.

 

civilwarhospital

The National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, MD, tries to debunk the widespread medical myth that anesthesia did not exist during the Civil War.

Gaseous ether and chloroform were both widely available and their therapeutic impact was well known in both Union and Confederate medical services. (Both had been used since the 1840s.) Major surgery was carried out using these anesthetics if they were available. It is estimated that greater than 90% of all major surgery was carried out with anesthetics. See http://www.civilwarmed.org/articles/myth_busters/

But neither ether nor chloroform was available before the 1840s, so Revolutionary War-era medical practices did not include the use of anesthetics.

Other medical misconceptions from the pre-anesthesia era abound. Ben Swenson, a historian and re-enactor who worked at Yorktown, VA, a Revolutionary War site, says visitors often approached him with incorrect assumptions. Something “we heard all the time that was patently false was that they would get soldiers rip roaring drunk before amputating an arm or a leg. There are actually a couple of misconceptions here. First, despite popular belief, they did not just take a hacksaw to peoples’ limbs. It was actually quite an intricate procedure involving skin and muscle knives, muscle retractors, saws, cauterizing irons, etc. And the alcohol thing is Hollywood history. Alcohol dilates the blood vessels and they knew that. They would not have wanted their patient to bleed to death. Besides, being drunk doesn’t dull the pain, it only changes your reaction to it. So no alcohol. And no again, they didn’t give someone a bullet to bite on…when someone cuts into you, you scream, and that bullet goes down the gullet. A stick would probably have been used to keep someone from biting his tongue off.”

So the absence of anesthesia is a myth if it’s said to pertain to the Civil War, but true during the Revolutionary War.

 

Earlier Comments:

janice says:
January 8, 2013 at 4:21 pm (Edit)
well, thank you. yes, the movies have influenced my thinking. i never questioned this. also they make you feel that the conditions of surgery was barbaric. i remember seeing a house in a tour of a civil war battlefield that they indicated was used as a hospital for wounded. i wonder how few really lost limbs, after reading this.

Reply
Mary Miley says:
January 8, 2013 at 5:23 pm (Edit)
Soldiers certainly did lose limbs, but the circumstances were not as primitive as the movies would lead us to believe.

Reply
azambone says:
January 9, 2013 at 9:21 pm (Edit)
Reblogged this on Notanda and commented:
ALZ Comments: Another historical myth that frosts my clock. Like most historical myths, it believes that our ancestors were much, much less intelligent than we.

Reply
Carole Kingham says:
November 3, 2013 at 7:05 pm (Edit)
Being a Respiratory Therapist in my real world job, and a Confederate Doctor at events, I love the bite the bullet myth and usually address it when asked…my take is that pre modern age, teeth were not a thing to be taken lightly and without floride in the toothpastes were pretty soft in comparison to a hard lead bullet. A bite down on the bullet would probably lead to cracked and/or broken teeth, which would lead to a scream and probably inhalation of said bullet and fragments of teeth…causing a different form of lead poisoning, lol! And that anesthesia of both types were pretty available during the war.

Reply
Daisiemae says:
January 8, 2016 at 9:09 pm (Edit)
I was expounding upon this myth on Facebook when a Friend informed me that her brother-in-law owns a “Civil War bullet with teethmarks on it.”

I said that whatever marks are present on this bullet must have come from something else.

Does anyone have any light to shed on these supposed bullets full of teethmarks?

Reply

2 Responses to Revisited Myth # 103: Civil War soldiers underwent surgery with no anesthesia.

  1. Susan Sommers says:

    Was it possible to get ether or chloroform in the South since most of the ports were blockcaded? Could this be how the myths started? Yes they knew about anesthetics but couldn’t use them because they had to be imported and they were not available? Thanks.

  2. Mary Miley says:

    It’s possible, however I remember being told by a tour guide at the Exchange Hotel Civil War Medical Museum in Gorduonsville, VA, that anesthetics were commonly used. Maybe at the end of the war, when just about everything was in short supply . . .

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