“Medic!” That cry on the battlefield means a soldier is wounded. It also means someone will almost always respond, a normally-unarmed battlefield medic. This is the known and expected outcome of that call. But where did battlefield medicine start and how did evolve?
Battlefield Medics: How Warfare Changed the History of Medicine, by Martin King, tells that story. He starts with the origins of battlefield medicine and traces its progress through the present. He also shows its impact on all of modern medicine.
The story starts in Ancient Egypt. Pharaoh’s armies had an organized medical service. The treatments of the day were limited to first aid, herbal medicine, and a lot of prayer. Surgery was rarely attempted. Dissection lay in the future.
From there, King carries the tale forward. The first half of the book examines battlefield medicine prior to the twentieth century. He shows the contributions the ancient Greeks and Romans made through Hippocrates and Galen (who advanced wound treatment). He presents the Middle Ages and the emergence of the barber-surgeon. (The same guy who cut your hair tended your wounds.)
He shows how battlefield trauma medicine began entering modern times when men like Ambroise Paré appeared, with scientific knowledge added by Andreas Vesalius and William Harvey. From there he traces the appearance of the military hospital, and the inclusion of surgeons on the rolls of warships and military units.
Battlefield surgery arrived with Dominique-Jean Larrey in Napoleonic France, and evolved throughout the nineteenth century. King discusses the influence of Florence Nightingale, Clara Barton (and the Sanitary Commission) and Henry Dunant (who founded the Red Cross).
King spends the remaining half of the book in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It is an appropriate split, because medical technology, including battlefield medical technology grew at an astonishing rate after 1900. Care received by soldiers of the First World War was far superior to that experienced in the wars of the mid-1800s.
King documents how each successive twentieth-century war saw quantum improvements in battlefield medicine; sulfa drugs and penicillin in World War II, helicopter evacuation and MASH units in Korea, rapid transport to sophisticated stateside hospitals by Vietnam, and more, all the way into this century.
Battlefield Medics is a whirlwind trip through trauma medicine’s history. King shows the symbiotic relationship between modern civilian trauma medicine and battlefield trauma treatment since World War II in this book. It will fascinate those interesting in medical and military history.
“Battlefield Medics: How Warfare Changed the History of Medicine,” by Martin King, Sirius, 2021, 256 pages, $12.99 (paperback) $6.99 (ebook)
*Mark Lardas is an engineer, freelance writer, historian and model-maker living in Texas. Mark posts on Ricochet as “Seawriter,” and is well-known for his regular and much appreciated reviews of books on all subjects. Of his reviews, he says “I have an unusual approach to reviewing books. I review books I feel merit a review. Each review is an opportunity to recommend a book. If I do not think a book is worth reading, I find another book to review.” His website is marklardas.com.
Note from me (RWKJ): Well, I’m sold. You see, I live on a farm, and not long after we moved out here, all the way back in 1986, we had a difficulty with one of our sheep. The wonderful old veterinarian who came out to help reminded me of James Herriot (one of my childhood heroes), and had a plethora of stories. He repaired the ram’s wound not with stitches, but with–superglue!! And explained that many rough-and-ready remedies that had been enthusiastically adopted by veterinarians (before their “approved” versions were unleashed on human medicine) came from the battlefield. Another such innovation is that sticks-to-itself, elastic bandage stuff that is so very useful when binding a wound and no other bandage will conform to the shape. (It’s used a lot to bandage horse’s legs. But not around here. It’s invaluable for all creatures, including me. We have much to thank our men (and women) in uniform for. But not many realize the benefit of this sort of thing.)