5 Ways in Which World War One Transformed Medicine | History Hit

5 Ways in Which World War One Transformed Medicine

A World War One ambulance and crew at Aldershot Military Hospital.
Image Credit: Wellcome Collection / Public Domain

When World War One arrived in 1914, the chances of survival following injury or illness were higher than they had ever been before. The discovery of penicillin, the first successful vaccines and the development of germ theory had all revolutionised medicine in Western Europe.

But medical treatment on the front lines and in military hospitals often remained relatively rudimental, and hundreds of thousands of men died from injuries that would be considered perfectly treatable today. However, 4 years of bloody and brutal warfare, with casualties piling up in their thousands, allowed doctors to pioneer new and often experimental treatment in last-ditch attempts to save lives, achieving notable successes in the process.

By the time the war ended in 1918, huge leaps forward had been made in battlefield medicine and general medical practice. Here are just 5 of the ways in which World War One helped transform medicine.

1. Ambulances

The trenches of the Western Front were often several miles from any form of hospital. As such, one of the biggest problems with regards to medical facilities and treatment was getting wounded soldiers seen by a doctor or surgeon in time. Many ended up dying en route thanks to time wasted, whilst others had infection set in, necessitating life-changing amputations or illness as a result.

This was quickly recognised as an issue: the previous system of piling bodies on horse-drawn carts or leaving wounds until they festered was costing thousands of lives.

As a result, women were employed as ambulance drivers for the first time, often working 14-hour days as they shuttled wounded men from the trenches back to the hospitals. This newfound speed set a precedent for rapid urgent medical care across the world.

After the First World War broke out, Flora Murray and Louisa Garrett Anderson established a hospital in a vast and derelict old workhouse in Covent Garden's Endell Street. The medical marvel which sprung up treated 26,000 wounded men over the next four years, and was staffed entirely by women. Wendy Moore joined Dan on the pod to tell this remarkable story, and discuss the legacy of these pioneering women.
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2. Amputations and antiseptic

Soldiers living in the trenches endured horrible conditions: they shared the space with rats and lice amongst other pests and vermin – which could cause the so-called ‘trench fever’ – and the constant damp led many to develop ‘trench foot’ (a kind of gangrene).

Any kind of injury, however minor, could easily become infected if left untreated in such conditions, and for a long time, amputation was virtually the only solution for many injuries. Without skilled surgeons, amputation wounds were just as prone to infection or serious damage, often meaning that they too could be a death sentence.

After countless failed attempts, British biochemist Henry Dakin discovered an antiseptic solution made from sodium hypochlorite which killed dangerous bacteria without doing the wound any more damage. This pioneering antiseptic, combined with a new method of wound irrigation, saved thousands of lives in the later years of the war.

3. Plastic surgery

The new machinery and artillery used during World War One caused disfiguring injuries on a scale which had never been known before. Those who survived, partly thanks to new surgeries and antiseptics, would often have extreme scarring and horrific facial injuries.

Pioneering surgeon Harold Gillies began to experiment using skin graphs to repair some of the damage done – for cosmetic reasons, but also practical. Some of the injuries and resulting healing left men unable to swallow, move their jaws or close their eyes properly, which made any kind of normal life virtually impossible.

Thanks to Gillies’ methods, hundreds, if not thousands, of wounded soldiers were able to live more normal lives after suffering devastating traumas. The techniques pioneered during World War One still form the basis of many plastic or reconstructive surgery procedures today.

One of the first ‘flap’ skin grafts. Done by Harold Gillies on Walter Yeo in 1917.

Image Credit: Public Domain

4. Blood transfusions

In 1901, the Austrian scientist Karl Landsteiner discovered that human blood actually belongs to 3 different groups: A, B and O. This discovery marked the beginning of a scientific understanding of blood transfusions and a turning point in their use.

It was during 1914 that blood was successfully stored for the first time, using an anticoagulant and refrigeration which meant that it was a much more feasible technique as donors did not have to be on-site at the time of transfusion.

World War One proved to be a catalyst for the development of widespread blood transfusion. A Canadian doctor, Lieutenant Lawrence Bruce Robertson, pioneered transfusion techniques using a syringe, and persuaded the authorities to adopt his methods.

Blood transfusions proved to be hugely valuable, saving thousands of lives. They prevented men from going into shock from blood loss and helped people survive major trauma.

Prior to major battles, doctors were also able to establish blood banks. These ensured a steady supply of blood was ready for when casualties began to flood into the hospitals thick and fast, revolutionising the speed at which medical staff could work and the number of lives that could potentially be saved.

5. Psychiatric diagnoses

Suzie Grogan talks about the 'hidden illness' of World War One, now better known as shellshock or PTSD. Dan chats with her about the initial reception to cases of shellshock and how diagnoses changed as we understood the problem better over time.
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During World War One, millions of men left their staid lives and signed up for military service: warfare on the Western Front was nothing like any of them had experienced before. Constant noise, heightened terror, explosions, trauma and intense combat caused many to develop ‘shell shock’, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as we would now refer to it.

Caused by both physical and psychological injuries, many men would find themselves unable to speak, walk or sleep, or be constantly on edge, their nerves shot to pieces. Initially, those who reacted as such were viewed as cowards or lacking moral fibre. There was no understanding and certainly no compassion for those afflicted.

It took years for psychiatrists to begin to properly understand shell shock and PTSD, but World War One was the first time the medical profession formally recognised the psychological trauma and impact of warfare on those involved in it. By the start of World War Two in 1939, there was a greater understanding of and more compassion for the psychological effect warfare could have on soldiers.

Sarah Roller