Patriots Day: The dangers of war included the surgeon’s scalpel

Peter Costa

If the British didn’t kill you during the Revolutionary War, your own battlefield surgeon might.

Soldiers, who were wounded by musket shot or bayonet thrust, often perished from primitive surgical procedures.

Few doctors had any formal medical training and those who did possessed only a rudimentary knowledge of anatomy or scientific techniques.

According to Bob Parsons of Westford, who is a surgeon’s mate Revolutionary War reenactor, there were three ways to becoming a doctor: You could go to medical school, usually in Edinburgh in England or the 10-year-old Philadelphia Medical College in America; you could serve for six years as an apprentice to a doctor; or you could work at a hospital and learn medical techniques.

“Amputation was the most common operation during the Revolutionary War. A patient was held down by two surgical mates and a leather tourniquet fitted with a screw was placed just above the line where the limb was to be sawn off. Then the doctor took a large curved surgical knife or scalpel and cut to the bone. He then took a bone saw and cut the limb off,” Parsons said.

“A good surgeon could amputate an arm and a leg in about seven minutes,” he said,

The wound was often cauterized with an iron poker that was kept white hot in a coal fire. A bandage dipped in tar was then placed on the wound.

And there was no anesthesia.

“A patient was given a stick to bite on. It is a Hollywood myth that patients undergoing surgery were given rum or brandy to ease the pain. Alcohol thins out the blood and a patient would have bled out before the surgery was completed,” Parsons said.

Only 35 percent of the patients survived an operation.

“That is why a doctor was the last person a soldier wanted to see,” he said.

Vinegar and squirrel brains

Moreover, according to Westford’s Marilyn Day, who wrote “The Physicians of Westford, Mass. 1720 – 1960,” more soldiers died from disease than battlefield wounds.

“The whole issue of smallpox and the Revolutionary War is so sad. It seems that soldiers would bring the germs home right on their clothing and unknowingly give it to their families,” Day wrote in an e-mail.

According to “Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-1782” by Elizabeth Anne Fenn, more than 130,000 North Americans lost their lives to smallpox. Gen. George Washington, at one point, ordered letters from Boston be dipped in vinegar to stop the spread of smallpox. The usual treatment for smallpox at the time was “bleeding” to expel the “evil” blood and other “bad humors.”

People of the time employed home remedies for wounds that, today, would be considered not only ill-advised but bizarre.

According to a narrative printed in “The Revolution Remembered, Eyewitness Accounts of the War for Independence,” by John C. Dann, Editor, animal parts were used as treatments for wounds during the war.

“p. 296, narrative of David Freemoyer (b. 1761) of Albany, N.Y., was wounded in an ambush by Indians in September 1779 near Conesus, N.Y.: ‘…Here affiant and Murphy had their wounds dressed for the first time after their infliction, except the wound on the side of affiant’s leg, which gave affiant so much pain in traveling the day before that he was compelled to do something if possible to relieve it, which he done by killing a striped squirrel and putting the brains of the squirrel on the wound and fastening them on with the skin thereof.  Affiant’s wounds were so bad and disabled him so much, that he was placed on a packhorse and rode for six days.’ He recovered and served again in 1780 and 1781.”

Dysentery, typhus and malaria were common in camp and many combatants died from these diseases. The number of collateral casualties from diseases was huge.

“As men returned from the camps of the new army they brought diseases with them. Westford deaths in 1775 outpaced those of adjacent years by three times. Nearly 70 percent of non-army related deaths in 1775 occurred in August and September, with over 90 percent of those (23) being children under the age of 8,” Daniel Lacroix wrote in “Westford’s Role during the Revolutionary War.”

The War of Independence had great costs.