What kind of education or training qualified a person to be a doctor?
Herb Kaufman: There was no training for doctors; all you needed was enough money to attend lectures. You gave your money to the professor, and went to his lectures for nine months, and then you would do this again the following year. After eighteen months of listening, you called yourself a doctor and went out and practiced on patients. That is why they call it practicing medicine. Surgeons learned by watching other surgeons and by reading European books. Sometimes they would stand over the patients during surgery, and have an assistant hold the book and would actually be reading and referencing the diagrams while performing the surgery.
How did they sterilize the tools and themselves before surgery?
Kaufman: They didn’t. They did not know what germs were. They would wipe a tool off with a dirty, bloody rag and move on to the next person. They also wore their uniform or street clothes during surgery. Some doctors would wear an apron so it would not ruin their uniform.
What kind of uniform did a doctor in the military wear?
Kaufman: The same as everyone else, except he had a green sash. The green came from the flag, a hospital tent would have a flag with a green “H” on it, this was before the Red Cross had come around. The problem with a doctor wearing the same uniform as everyone else is that they were shot at also.
How did a soldier seek treatment if wounded?
Kaufman: During the civil war a gentleman by the name of John Leatherman came up with a system that is still used on the modern battlefield today. There were three parts, first a field station. This was pretty much on the front line and they would triage you. They would assess the soldier and if needed, they would be sent to the division hospital. The division hospital was away from the action but still close to the battlefield, here is where they would set bones or perform surgery. From there you would go to the general hospital to recuperate; this was far away from the battlefield.
Did they really amputate limbs without anesthesia like in the movies?
Kaufman: No, they did not. That is a Hollywood myth, no one was biting bullets. All medics had ether or chloroform with them.
What did a medic carry on him?
Kaufman: While traveling he would carry a smaller set of tools and his drugs.
What was the main tool the doctors used?
Kaufman: Their finger. Remember they did not have a concept of germs. They used their fingers to probe wounds and try to find the bullets or shrapnel inside. When Lincoln was shot several different doctors stuck their fingers inside of his head trying to find out what was wrong and where the bullet had went.
What did they use for pain?
Kaufman: Large amounts of drugs like opium and alcohol. Of course they became addicted to it but they did not understand that either. It wasn’t wrong back then to be addicted to drugs and alcohol, they called it soldiers’ disease.
Was amputation really necessary?
Kaufman: When a bullet would hit a bone in your arm or leg it would shatter it, or sometimes the bullet did not exit; this can cause serious infection and you would die. If they amputated the limb it would get rid of the problem and a person would have a much higher rate of survival.
The Civil War Museum of Philadelphia
The Civil War Institute at Manor College