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Medical Advances of the Crimean War




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The soldiers of the Crimean War faced many perils while stationed on the front lines. The winter of 1854-1855 was an especially trying time for these soldiers. It was an unusually harsh winter. Coupled with the drastic weather conditions, soldiers were at a loss for adequate supplies. The army had experienced a large loss of their supply stores, partially do to the weather extremeties. That year the army also suffered heavy casualties. Even those who were injured on the battlefield did not hold much hope of surviving to ever make it back home.

There were huge numbers of casualties in the Crimean War. It is believed that 19,584 officers and soldiers died in this time interval. Another 2,873 were permanently incapacitated. Of the approximately 22,000 men injured or killed in battle, only 3,754 died in battle. The remainder of the casualties resulted from the chaos within the British medical department. For example, 85% of admittants to the British hospitals suffered from scurvy. Scurvy was a preventable disease at this time, but it occurred frequently because of the terrible medical conditions associated with this war.

Patients that were taken to Florence Nightingale’s field hospital in Scutari were significantly less likely to survive than those who were engaged in the Charge of the Light Brigade. This is a dramatic fact since nearly two-thirds of the soldiers involved in this battle died. Most of those admitted to Nightingale’s hospital were already dying of infected wounds, severe blood loss, exposure, or, normally, a combination of all three dire conditions.

The gross failure of these hospitals led to the promotion of Florence Nightingale to oversee the introduction of female nurses. It was sometime after the Crimean War that the military medical system underwent major reform. A new standard for nursing care was produced in the British hospital at Scutari, located in a suburb of Constantinople.

Nearly 80% of soldiers admitted to these hospitals died from infections from being in the hospitals, not from their original wounds. Florence Nightingale helped to dramatically change these issues with improvement in hygiene and sanitation in hospitals, which helped drop the rates of infections. After the war, Nightingale set out on a campaign to modernize hospitals. She had a large influence on hospital design and nursing practices used today.

Louis Pasteur’s discovery of the link between germs and infections transformed medicine of the 19th century. Joseph Lister applied this idea in the use of the first antiseptic used to help clean wounds and surgical instruments. Surgeons began to wash their hands with carbolic acid before surgery. This caused deaths from surgeries to greatly plummet. A fine spray of carbolic acid was done over the patient to help kill any microbes in the air. These two procedures lead to dramatic results. In one Newcastle hospital, these techniques reduced death from infection from 60% to 4% (History of Medicine). These new medical practices also reduced the need for amputations. Doctors were then able to set fractures instead of having to cut the limbs off. Those with appendicitis and ulcers were no longer fatal cases.

Edward Mason Wrench, a surgeon in the Crimean War, wrote of his experiences as Assistant Surgeon and head of a section of the British Military Hospital. There were no beds or proper bedding in the hospital in Balaclava. Patients had to lye in their dirty clothes on the hospital floor. A hurricane had blown out all of the windows in the hospital. This allowed rain to be blown onto the patients of the hospital. Dr. Wrench’s experience with these factors were, “Wounds were infected by the heat and dust, by shortage of water and lack of proper care, and grew more and more painful. Foul exhalations contaminated the air, in spite of the praiseworthy attempts of the authorities to keep hospital areas in a sanitary condition (Before Geneva Law).”

The hospital had little supplies. For example, Dr. Wrench remarked, “We were practically without medicines, the supply landed at the commencement of the campaign was exhausted, and the reserve had gone to the bottom of the sea in the wreck of the Prince so that in November 1854 even the base hospital at Balaclava was devoid of opium, guinine, ammonia, and indeed of all important drugs. (Before Geneva)”

Although the condition of British hospitals was inadequate, they were not alone. The Russian medical department was not better off. French camps also suffered from unsanitary and overcrowded conditions. Many soldiers died from diseases like typhus. Typhus affected 90% of all patients in ambulances. The dirty, overcrowded condition of ambulances, transports, and hospitals contributed to the rapid spread of this epidemic.

The Crimean War had an affect on future medial practices. Henry Durant’s book proposing medicinal reforms in June of 1859 led to the establishment of the International Red Cross Movement. His writings were inspired by his witnessing of the grossly negligent conditions of war victims. Most of the medical improvements made at this time were funded by private people and charities.

The awful conditions of the Crimean War did help to enact some important medical reforms. This led to improvements in the treatment of soldiers in the future wars throughout the world. These advancements would never have been possible without great medical minds like Florence Nightingale, Edward Mason Wrench, and Henry Durant, who were not afraid to express their sometimes unpopular notions of how to improve the medical field. These great intellectuals helped to create the hospital conditions that we see today.

Sources Cited

Pearce, Robert L. “War and Medicine in the Nineteenth Century.” September 2002. 19 February 2004 .

McCoubrey, Hilaire. “Before ‘Geneva’ Law: a British Surgeon in the Crimean War.” 28 February 1995. 20 February 2004 .

“History of Medicine: 18th and 19th Centuries.” 22 February 2004 .

Dormandy, Thomas. “Hospital Infections: Past, Present, and Future.” December 2003. 23 February 2004 .

Jackson, David. “War and Medicine in the Nineteenth Century.” 12 February 2002. 23 February 2004 .