Journal of Interdisciplinary Undergraduate Research


Diller, Lisa; Burton, Kevin


The most common historiographical narrative used to explain the transformation of American medicine during the Civil War centralizes on the brilliance of a few notable physicians, whose radical ideas, daring, and exceptional work ethic built or set precedents for standards foundational to modern medicine. However, this approach is limited and does not consider the impact of the context of war and power structures in shaping the practice of medicine. Through examining personal accounts and official documentation including, government reports, news articles, war journals, private and military correspondence, physicians and nurse’s notes, and post-war autobiographical recollections, a new understanding emerges. Civil War physicians were mobilized to make medical breakthroughs due to the context of war itself. The demands of battlefield medicine coupled with the unprecedented magnitude of the wounded exacerbated and made unavoidably explicit many dysfunctional norms and commonly held practices in treatment or inpatient care that too often characterized early American medicine. The context of war exposed the need for changes in medical practice, which was consequently made possible by the military’s centralized authority, resources, and systems. These two factors prompted Civil War physicians to transform and professionalize medicine by establishing and enforcing standards for inpatient care procedures or training requirements for practitioners. Ultimately, without the circumstance of battle or the power structure of the military at war, the changes that improved medical practice would have happened much more incrementally and over a more extended period.