Horrors of the First World War

We have been healing since the first time man walked the earth. Dressing injuries, fighting off disease and infection. It has always been human instinct to eliminate our pain. In nature, medicine is evolutionary. It is essential that it adapts and overcomes the maladies that plague this world. But never had medicine taken a larger leap forward than during the events of the First World War.

The global bloodshed had numerous nicknames at the time. The Great War. The War of the Nations. But perhaps the most fitting was the War to End All Wars. The original meaning of this name had been lost. In 1914, it was used as a symbol of hope. Now it appears cynical, heavy with scorn. However, even in the darkest times of the world, there was still one beacon of hope. Something we have relied on for thousands of years. Medicine. Great Britain and France were leading in this field, quick to establish base hospitals to sustain their forces. The U.S. followed suit, setting up facilities near their soldiers (Campbell). The hospitals all served an average of 10,000 soldiers during their time active (Kovac). In these hospitals, history was being made. Revolutionary advances in radiology, surgical operations, pain medication, paramedic medicine, and even physiologic conditions were made in the throes of global-scale battle. The medicals innovations during World War I have forever revolutionized modern medicine.

Radiology today employs the use of electromagnetic waves to see inside the body. The process is now known as an X-ray, the name originating from German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen referring to radiation as an unknown variable or “X” (Panchbai). Before this innovation, the only way to see inside of the body was through surgery, which was most often fatal to the patient. Bullets and other foreign objects were therefore inaccessible to doctors, which caused a myriad of preventable deaths. The electromagnetic waves utilized by the new X-ray machine helped doctors discover fatal wounds quickly and allowed them more time to work on a patient. This was essential for military medicine because the majority of wounds were caused by lodged bullets, knives, and other weapons. But Röntgen wasn’t the only scientist offering his services for the war effort.

Madame Marie Curie was also hard at work, establishing her name as a renowned chemist and physicist at the time of World War I. She is attributed with the discoveries of the “radioactive” (a term which she coined) elements radium and polonium. She was awarded both the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and Physics, the first woman to receive either of these accolades. Curie was also an advocate for X-ray technology, lecturing on the subject at the Paris Sorbonne University. However, even with all of her success, she still wanted to lend her hand to the war. The X-ray machines were incredibly efficient but were only available in select hospitals in France (Davis). Madame Curie intended to change this. She designed radiology cars, mobile vehicles that carried the equipment to operate on soldiers on the battlefield. They were nicknamed petite curies in honor of the scientist. These units started to grow in numbers, becoming readily available at all battle sites. Madame Curie learned to drive and operate them herself, also encouraging her teenage daughter Irène and other women looking to assist to become technicians (“War Duty…”). Together, the two Curies started instructional sessions for exclusively women to learn to drive and operate the technology on board. This is one of the main reasons why nursing is usually a female-dominated profession (Davis). Madame Curie’s utilization of new technology helped save the lives of thousands of soldiers then and continues to save many more.

Humans are inherently hedonistic and pain has been one of the greatest hurdles to overcome to achieve this ideal. The pain caused during necessary surgery was especially feared. It is impossible to completely eradicate pain, whether it be mental or physical. But the development and use of the numbing agent anesthesia took a large step in the right direction. It was first conceived by American physicians William T.G. Morton and John Collins Warren in 1846. The first successful surgery to use this new gas created with nitrous oxide was performed during the same year in Massachusetts (Robinson and Toledo). This had been an monumental step in surgical medicine and the two doctors were praised for their innovation. In the years before the 20th century, anesthesia and other pain reducing medication were being developed. The drug was highly unpredictable in how effective it was at the time (Condon-Rall). Anesthesia was just starting to slowly be implemented in some surgeries before the United States formally entered World War I.

The amount of surgeries that needed to be performed increased exponentially, so anesthesia was quickly thrown into battlefield hospitals. Like most medical drugs, anesthesia was still in its very experimental phase in the years before the war started. It continued to show inconsistencies in its capability to reduce pain (Robinson and Toledo). This was amplified in the hands of inexperienced technicians who were forced to use it. But the demand for numbing agents continued still with the amount of mortally wounded soldiers escorted out of the trenches. Doctors continued to refine the gas throughout the course of the war, even changing the formula to improve the effectiveness in certain surgeries. The common procedure performed were gangrene infection removals and amputations (Condon-Rall). Both of these surgeries are drastically different and it would have been catastrophic for either forms of anesthesia to be used for these operations. Even under the stresses of combat, these physicians were able to advance this historical drug to the point where it became an essential part of surgery then and now. Today, almost every surgery is performed with the aid of anesthesia and similar painkillers. Not only does it make the operation less stressful for the patient, it also makes the success rate of surgeries increase exponentially. Although it was originally developed in the 1849, anesthetic gas took its vital steps to completion during World War I.

Medicine is required to move quickly. It is only a matter of seconds that could determine whether someone lives or dies. First response medicine, therefore, is an essential branch of medicine. As one can imagine, emergency medical procedures are quite frequent on the fields of battle. It was in World War I when quick operations significantly improved in efficiency and saved hundreds of thousands of more lives. It was in the early 1900s where the knowledge of bacterial contamination was actually utilized. The cause behind infections was previously unknown. It had not become common practice for doctors to sterilize equipment and sanitize operating stations before procedure. The realization of

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Horrors of the First World War. (2022, Aug 25). Retrieved September 23, 2022 , from

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