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The Early Days of Amputation in America


Written By: Christine Dantz

February, 2016

Early Days of Amputation in America

 

Medical amputation has come a long way since the American Civil War, in fact, today most of our country's war vets who loss a limb in the line of duty go on to live long, active lives. That wasn't always the case, during the Civil War, the chances of surviving and thriving after an amputation were similar to amputating a limb fast enough to stop a zombie infection today.

 

An estimated 60,000 amputations were performed by battlefield doctors during the American Civil War from 1861-1865, that is because 70 percent of all battle wounds were to the hands, arms, legs, and feet.

 

 

According to the Civil War Monitor, this picture, below, from the Library of Congress of a makeshift hospital in Gettysburg in July of 1863 was staged, but is still one of the few remaining photos of a Civil War era amputation.

 

Staged after the war, this image is one of the few existing photographs of a Civil War era amputation surgery
Staged after the war, this image is one of the few existing photographs of a Civil War era amputation surgery. This "surgery" was staged outside of a Gettysburg hospital tent. (Image credit: Library of Congress)

Here is a typical battlefront doctor's instrument case, the image is from the archives of the U.S. National Library of Medicine. This case has a surgical saw, a curved and straight surgical probe, and tweezers.

 

typical Civil War battlefront doctor's instrument case,

 

The probes were used to inspect the wound prior to amputation. There were two types of amputations done at this time, circular and flap. The circular peeled back the skin before severing the bone and then rolling the skin back down and sewing it together at the end around the bone creating the stump. The Flap cut the skin around the bone into two long flaps that would be sewn back together and around the end of the bone creating the stump.

A painting by Edward Stauch, of Private Milton E. Wallen of Company C, 1st Kentucky Cavalry, wounded by munitions in a prison camp on July 4, 1863. The private had to be treated for gangrene, an infection that took the lives of many amputees prior to 1864 when surgeons discovered carbolic acid to kill the infection.


Private Milton E. Wallen of Company C, 1st Kentucky Cavalry, wounded by munitions in a prison camp on July 4, 1863

 

An example of the crud leg amputations during the American Civil War is depicted in the photo below, of Private Charles Myer, taken by William Bell. While battlefield surgeons were working hard to save lives, the cuts made in their quickened hast left many veterans looking butchered. The cut and closure of the stump is important for prosthetic fittings.


While battlefield surgeons were working hard to save lives, the cuts made in their quickened hast left many veterans looking butchered.

 

Luckily for today's veterans, the bone saw is electric, pre-and-post surgical would care has improved greatly, and pain medication is safer, as well as more efficient. You can watch a video of a bloodless 3D medical animation featuring a modern, lower leg amputation surgery here.


Operating in the portable operating container in a MASH unit in Iraq.
Surgeons operating in the portable operating container of the 212th MASH in Iraq.

 

According to the Amputee Coalition, there are about 2 million people living without a limb in the U.S. That number grows by nearly 200,000 each year.

References:
Davis, Laura June. "Photo Essay: Wounded Warriors: Civil War Amputation." Civil War Monitor. Accessed December 11, 2015. http://www.civilwarmonitor.com/photo-essays/album?albumid=1007.
"File:Wallen Wounded by Minie Ball.jpg." Wikimedia Commons. Accessed December 11, 2015. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wallen_wounded_by_Minie_ball.jpg.
"File:Wbell-leg-amputation.jpg." Wikimedia Commons. Accessed December 11, 2015. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wbell-leg-amputation.jpg.
"Limb Loss Statistics." Amputee Coalition. Accessed December 11, 2015. http://www.amputee-coalition.org/limb-loss-resource-center/resources-by-topic/limb-loss-statistics/limb-loss-statistics/.
"Lower Leg Amputation Surgery (Amputated Leg)." YouTube. September 28, 2009. Accessed December 11, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XFb2fXPZi8A.
"U.S. National Library of Medicine (archives)." Accessed December 11, 2015. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/lifeandlimb/images/OB1020.jpg.

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Other Articles of Interest:

Medical Technology That Will Save Lives in Combat

Predicting Alzheimer's With a Blood Test

Not Mad Science: The Heart Beat You Can See From Across the Room

Better Imaging for Treating Pancreatic Cancer

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