History is the best medicine the Civil War had to offer Museum: Exhibits explore not the battle win, but to heal in an era of conflict and change.

August 22, 1996|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

FREDERICK -- A bullet ripped into Richard Brown's left thigh, and as the 21-year-old Confederate cavalryman struggled to stay mounted, his horse fell on him, snapping the same leg's thigh bone.

Medically, even with the compound fracture, the bullet wound would not likely be life-threatening today.

But this was a hot, muggy Friday on East Patrick Street in September 1862. For nearly two months, Brown suffered in a nearby Union hospital in the old Hessian barracks that still stand at the Maryland School for the Deaf. On Nov. 7, he died.

Private Brown's black and white photograph stares out at visitors from a wall in the new National Museum of Civil War Medicine here. His story is a newly recognized footnote in American medical history, told in a Civil War museum unlike any you've visited.

For rather than concentrating on battles, or slavery, or Blue and Gray, this museum is about an unheralded result of that war that former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop calls "a watershed in the history of medicine."

Many museums focus on the Civil War and its battles, but what happened to its 620,000 dead and even more wounded gets only passing mention.

"What we take for granted in medicine today started then," says Dr. Gordon E. Dammann, a dentist in Lena, Ill., who came up with the idea for the museum. "Before the war, American medicine was looked down on by the rest of the world. After the war, we quickly became the leader."

Forced to cope with rampant illness and horrible wounds numbering in the tens of thousands, doctors with little in the way of modern knowledge or technology experimented, improvised, and invented. The list of advances taken for granted today is impressive:

Better sanitation practices, modern hospitals, nursing as a profession, wide use of anesthetics, the triage system of treating the injured, mobile surgical units -- all have Civil War roots.

In the process, doctors saved many like Carlton Burgan, whose photograph hangs next to Richard Brown's on the museum wall.

Burgan was a Union foot soldier, just 18, when a bad cold turned into pneumonia in Winchester, Va. Today, antibiotics, nourishment and rest would quickly return him to normal. But he survived this Civil War-reality: For every soldier that bullets and shrapnel killed on the Civil War battlefields, two died of disease -- ranging from childhood maladies such as measles to the more serious malaria, diphtheria and typhoid.

Burgan's well-intentioned doctor, who knew nothing about germs or antibiotics, treated him with "calomel," a mercury-based potion intended to make him salivate and, thus, flush his body of "bad humors."

It was common practice 134 years ago. No one knew that mercury was a toxin. So the "remedy" ate away much of the soft tissue inside the young soldier's mouth, not to mention his jawbone, right cheekbone and eye, and part of his nose.

A "before" photo of Burgan's disease-eroded face reminds you of a grotesque Popeye in extremis. "After" is where his story surprises.

His face has been restored to near-normal dimensions and features, though thickly scarred with Frankensteinesque seams where live tissue was stitched to cover a reconstructed jaw, cheek and nose. Gurdon Buck, the New York doctor who did the work, is regarded as the father of modern plastic surgery.

Add a happy ending: Burgan was discharged from the army, married, and had "many" children before dying at age 71 in 1915.

Stories that personalize the war this way -- for soldiers and doctors alike -- accompany many of the 3,000 medical tools, devices, kits, packages, medicines, accouterments, and rare documents collected by Gordon Dammann. This material constitutes the private, non-profit museum's starting point.

Frederick was chosen for its location because the city actually was a major wartime medical center -- central to major battles at Gettysburg, Antietam, Harper's Ferry, on the Monocacy, all along South Mountain, and south into the Shenandoah Valley. No fewer than 29 churches, schools and other buildings in Frederick, many near today's museum, served as hospitals at some point during the war.

Go ahead, cynics, call a positive spin on a time better known for medical practices bordering on the barbaric reconstructive history. Because everyone has read about and in movies has seen the Civil War's "surgeons," who left behind more than 50,000 legs and arms amputated at various battlegrounds. But even with only a few of Dammann's items on display now, the museum's exhibits reshape such skepticism without sugarcoating the obvious. The museum's goriest element, discretely played over-and-over on videotape next to a reconstructed field hospital, is a chillingly realistic leg amputation concocted by Civil War re-enactors.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.