Thoughts of the American Civil War are generally associated with the dissolution of the Confederacy, the abolishment of slavery, the Lincoln assassination, and gangrene- riddled soldiers waiting to have their limbs amputated with nothing but courage and a stiff drink to take the edge off – certainly not contributions to modern Anesthesia.
A recent article from The University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Medicine titled Anesthesia came of age during Civil War dates the use of anesthesia to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. “The sheer magnitude of battlefield injuries during the conflict played a major role in establishing the regular use of anesthesia,” causing physicians to abandon the use of alcoholic drinks, opioid drugs and bite bricks as methods to restrain and soothe patients during surgery.
As battles intensified, and the number of casualties continued to rise, renowned surgeons both foreign and domestic provided manuals describing more than 120,000 uses of anesthetic agents. According to the UABSM article, “Eminent Confederate surgeon John Julian Chisholm published a manual for battlefield surgery in 1861 which included a chapter on the use of chloroform, and famed surgeon Valentine Mott’s essay on the use of the same agent was available to Union surgeons.”
The mortality rates associated with the incorporation of anesthesia were remarkably low; in fact some doctors who utilized the practice did not have a single loss to report. After some perfecting doctors took the techniques and findings regarding side effects and complications back to their practices, hospitals, and medical schools for the use of patients beyond the battlefield.