Medical Advancement as a Result of Warfare

The military has had an interest in medicine since the first cavemen fought over a good cave. For most of the history of man on this planet, more soldiers died of disease than from wounds of any sort. As we conquered disease, due largely to the military, wound care and battlefield first aid became increasingly important. Modern military medicine is approaching science fiction with many of the newest treatments available or soon to be available to soldiers.

The first diseases to kill soldiers were ones of sanitation. Cholera, typhus and typhoid were the scourge of the military encampment as late as the American Civil War. Within two generations, military leaders had realized that clean water and clean soldiers would prevent these illnesses completely. By planning the correct location of latrines, supplying pure water for cooking and drinking and by encouraging bathing to reduce the threat of lice, the diseases that killed warriors from the time of Alexander began to vanish from the battlefield. Sanitation is a military discovery.

The death blow to yellow fever was the military’s efforts to remove breeding sites for mosquitoes from Cuban and Panamanian cities. The foremost hospital in the military system, Walter Reed, is named for one of the military medical professionals that accomplished that task.

War wounds have often resulted in amputation of limbs. Research into artificial limbs was spurred by the wounded in World War II, and the military funded that work. Even today, DARPA is funding research into attaching artificial limbs to the human nervous system so that they operate with the same control that natural limbs do.

It has long been recognized that the sooner that an injured person can reach medical care, the greater their chance of recovery. The military created the first medical evacuation program using helicopters during the Korean War. Today, every urban center and most of the rural areas in the United States have access to air ambulances that airlift injured civilians to trauma centers and have saved thousands of lives since they began operation.

Emergency Medical Services (EMS) in the United States owes its origins to the military. Many of the men returning from Vietnam discovered that their emergency care stateside was two guys in an old hearse from the local undertaker. That was not what the military provided, and within a short time the EMS system was created. Since those early days, in many states paramedics now perform procedures in the field such as chest decompressions that were once the purview of surgeons in a hospital operating room.

The military is not finished. It continues to sponsor research that will change the lives of millions of Americans who may become sick or injured in the future. This is what the future holds: They can regrow a finger. They can use an ink jet printer to distribute adult stem cells and regrow burned tissue. They can prevent scars and repair much of the damage from existing scars. They can treat traumatic brain injury and replace the trauma that caused PTSD in memory.

The military continues its efforts to ameliorate or prevent injuries and illness in the soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and Coast Guardsmen under its command. These efforts result in medical advances of all kinds that are then transferred to civilian medical practices. In the end, military medicine helps us all.