Monday, November 13, 2006

Annual Trunkey Lecture

This morning, Dr. F. William Blaisdell, emeritus professor of surgery from UC Davis, delivered the fourth annual Donald D. Trunkey Lecture on "The medical and surgical advances during the Civil War." Dr. Blaisdell originally became interested in the history of the Civil War when he, as eldest son of an eldest son, inherited the family archive, including a war diary kept by his great-grandfather who served with the 12th New Hampshire regiment in that conflict. The great-grandfather was wounded at the Battle of Cold Harbor in 1864, and through the miracle of archival preservation, Dr. Blaisdell was able to learn the nature of his wounds, the treatment he received, and even in which building he was treated (Barracks 10).

The existence of these records of medical treatment from the Civil War was a major point of Dr. Blaisdell's talk: the compilation, post bellum, of the multi-volume Medical and surgical history of the War of Rebellion was, according to Blaisdell, the first major academic undertaking of the American medical establishment. It is filled with charts, tables, and lists of results from hundreds of thousands of cases showing, for example, that of 155 trephining operations, only sixty were successful. The comparative study was made to help determine best practices, e.g., for chest wounds: since no one dared enter the chest cavity (J.M. Carnochan's experience with a penetrating heart wound notwithstanding), the choice was between closing the wound or leaving it open to drain (and, actually, results seemed to be about the same for either course of action). Interestingly, these results from the medical corps of the North cannot be compared with treatments used by Southerners in the conflict: all of the medical records kept by the Confederate Army were burned in the great fire at Richmond.

One interesting fact from the talk, of which I was not formerly aware: it was the ban on use of "blue mass" for treatment of loose bowels among the men which was a primary factor in the court-martial of Surgeon General William Hammond, and his replacement by Joseph Barnes, in 1863. Pharmaceutical recall controversy even back in the 19th century!

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