To Heal the Wounds of Battle: WWPL’s World War I Surgical Kit

P1050032Few events in the history of mankind have caused as much suffering and growth as the First World War.

The Great War saw roughly 37 million men and women, trained soldiers and civilians, perish amidst the conflict that shook Europe and the world at its foundation; however, a figure unimaginable in size and immense in significance is the number of souls saved throughout the war by the newly established American Medical Corps. In a war of men organized to destroy, this division was developed to repair. Standing testament to their challenges and achievements is a World War I surgical kit found in the downstairs trenches of the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Museum. This kit prominently displaced with an early 1900s photograph of a Medical Corp surgical team is on loan to the Museum from the World War I Museum in Kansas City, MO.

The kit, somewhat primitive in light of today’s medical knowledge, contained very basic metallic tools for emergency operations often performed only miles from the front line, easily within range of German artillery of the time. The scalpel would be the surgeon’s “go-to” tool and used most frequently. With the sharpest blade of the tools, the surgeon would use the scalpel to make incisions in patients to retrieve shrapnel and bullets. Rarely properly sterilized between surgeons, the blade meant to heal often attributed to the spread of infections and disease among patients. With the scalpel, the kit includes scissors, prongs and a force. Combined, the tools of the kit found at the museum would be used to stabilize patients long enough to be transported by medical train or ambulance further back from the front line to receive more intensive medical attention.

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Recognition of the importance of sterilization among surgical tools would not occur until late in the war. This realization would lead to greater sanitation among doctors, nurses and their equipment which would immensely increase the likelihood of surviving amputations and surgery. Other medical advances of World War I would include the invention of the practice of using a Thomas Splint and X-Ray machines. The X-ray machine would revolutionize the method of extracting shrapnel and bullets from soldiers, particularly in the chest and head. The innovative Thomas Splint allowed doctors to set broken legs and then use the splint to hold the leg set in a still position. The splint allowed many soldiers with broken legs the opportunity of avoiding amputation, which saved many from bearing the risk of deadly infection.

Post written by WWPL intern Brendan Dodson

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