Olathe & Southwest Joco

Doc diagnoses the basic medical problems of the Civil War, starting with hygiene

At Tuesday night’s A Grisly Business: Civil War Field Medicine at the Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop and Farm, Dr. Bob Nottingham, right, demonstrates how doctors would use a tourniquet during an amputation.
At Tuesday night’s A Grisly Business: Civil War Field Medicine at the Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop and Farm, Dr. Bob Nottingham, right, demonstrates how doctors would use a tourniquet during an amputation. Special to The Olathe News

Nervous about germs picked up by those who didn’t practice basic hygiene, like hand-washing?

Imagine the plight of those who had to undergo surgery during the Civil War, when details like hand-washing, even by doctors, wasn’t considered a necessity.

That’s only one of the reasons you wouldn’t want to go under the knife on a Civil War battlefield, according to Dr. Bob Nottingham.

Nottingham led a program Tuesday night at the Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop and Farm called “A Grisly Business: Civil War Field Medicine.” A retired general practitioner, he’s portrayed an 1860s doctor for various children’s programs at the farm, but this talk was for the adults.

At the outbreak of the war, most doctors were not trained in any type of surgery.

“If you took a high school biology course, you have more knowledge than they did. (Doctors) would be handed a medical kit with saws, watch one (amputation), then get to work. Despite that, the survival rates were extraordinary,” he said.

By this time, chloroform had surpassed ether as the anesthetic of choice for doctors in battle — partly because it wasn’t so flammable.

In his research, Nottingham found a story of one doctor who performed 200 surgeries in a 24-hour period. Because there were limited ways to treat infections caused by bullet wounds, amputation was a way for doctors to save more men’s lives.

If you got wounded in the chest or abdomen, there wasn’t much the doctors could do but bandage it and keep you comfortable.

Field hospitals, while gruesome, weren’t filled with moaning patients, Nottingham said — but that’s probably because the standard painkillers of the time made heavy use of various forms of opium.

As part of the presentation, Nottingham showed off a set of replica surgical tools. The initial idea was for him to demonstrate what an amputation would look like on a butchered pig’s leg, but the replica tools simply aren’t sharp enough to do the job.

In addition to Civil War-era doctors having no idea about how infections were spread, the Army entrance physicals weren’t exactly up to the task either.

“Four hundred women volunteered as men and made it to the front lines. A lot were discovered when they were being operated on. Intro physicals were not very good — let’s put it that way,” Nottingham said.

A doctor in Hungary, Ignaz Semmelweis, had broached the idea that doctors should wash their hands between patients about 16 years before the Civil War started, but colleagues did not take his ideas seriously.

As bad as infected wounds were, diseases spread by poor sanitation were the biggest killer of the war.

Attendee Erin Nash of Parkville was surprised by some of the things she learned from the program.

“To survive the disease and infection is one thing, but to survive not-sanitary surgery is another,” she said.

Roger Burgdorfer of Olathe, who also came to the program, expressed similar sentiments.

“I didn’t realize how crude medicine was back then,” he said.

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