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Civil War: A Look at the Tools Found in a Surgeon’s Medical Kit

Advanced surgical techniques, bionic limbs, the availability of medical evacuation helicopters that function like a flying hospital – these are just some of the things that best describe how sophisticated the medical care for today’s soldiers. With these modern inventions, the soldiers nowadays have greater chances to survive compared to Civil War fighters before.

During the Civil War, typical soldiers believed that bullets were their most loathsome foe. But the truth is disease was their major killer and not the bullet. If we will trace back the prevalence of mortality rates during Civil War, more armies died because of illness brought by infection when the bullet hit them. Of the Union armies, three out of five of them died because of disease and an estimate of two out of three soldiers from the Confederate strength died for the same cause.

The state of medical knowledge during the Civil War is probably the chief reason why the frequency of soldiers who died from disease is much higher than those who were hit by the bullets. As I was browsing online, I found an interesting post on CBSNews.com that feature the 37 pieces of historic medicines including some surgical instruments and techniques used by Civil War surgeons in diagnosing and curing the ailments or injuries of battle fighters. And from that post, I noticed that ancient medical doctors or surgeons don’t have any knowledge that infection can worsen the condition of their patients. Antibiotics or antiseptics were not yet discovered by that period so they were never aware that failure to maintain cleanliness or sterility increases infection rates. Whenever a soldier had some minor wounds, the only curative procedure that medical doctors knew is to apply a direct pressure on the affected area and tie it with a piece of garment to stop bleeding. Meanwhile, for severely wounded battle fighters, the common surgical procedure that medical corps did so as to extend the victims life is amputation.

By the way, here are some of the common surgical instruments found in a surgeon’s medical kit during the Civil War era.

The monaural stethoscope, which is made from wood, was the first acoustic medical device for auscultation. Civil War doctors used this instrument to listen the internal sounds of the body

This is how distinctive the appearance of amputation saw during the Civil War period. It is primarily used for cutting bones.

The image above is a single-edged amputation knife that was used to cut through skin and muscle in circular amputations.

This wooden device is called tooth key and was basically used for extracting unwanted or defective tooth.

Fleam was the instrument used for bloodletting. The U-shaped blade is spring-loaded and activated by the trigger above it.

Since amputation was the only treatment of choice for severely wounded Civil War soldiers, this medical device called tourniquet was used to control bleeding during amputation.

This medical device known as trephine was used to drill a hole in the skull to reduce pressure or to elevate pieces of the skull.

This small version of amputation is called the metacarpal saw and it was designed for cutting smaller bones like those of the fingers, toes, hand, wrist, and rib.

During mouth and throat examination, this tongue depressor was used to depress the tongue. The tongue depressors during the Civil War period were made from ivory and were reused to another patient.