What were the five biggest advances in medicine during the First World War?

First World War

The First World War as called ‘the War to end all Wars’. But the huge numbers of casualties nevertheless mask significant progress that was made in the field of medicine, when doctors were obliged to treat new types of injuries in battlefield conditions. The pressures of making sure that injured soldiers could return to the front line as soon as possible turned out to provide a huge incentive for medical innovation. What were the five biggest advances in medicine during the First World War?

1. Hygiene

Advances in the understanding of basic hygiene and germs was key to improved treatment for a number of wounds. At the start of First World War, wounded limbs were amputated in order to avoid gangrene. Infection and decay were common because initial treatment was often delayed as a result of battle conditions. Conditions mattered greatly and efficiently washing a wound could prevent extreme surgeries. Once this was well understood, the numbers of troops killed by infection was significantly reduced.

2. Mental Health

World War I marked a new age in mental health and the treatment of psychological disorders. Though medical professionals were at first hesitant to diagnose mental illness and there was a lack of effective treatments, it was during the First World War that the first therapeutic principles that would create modern psychiatry were introduced. French methods adopted by an American psychiatrist led to the ‘Salmon principles’, named after the innovator who developed new techniques of care and support at the front. And of course the biggest advance was made in the treatment of shell shock; as new technologies in warfare resulted in increased numbers of soldiers sustaining shell shock, improved treatment of the condition became a necessity.

3. Giving and storing blood

The British Army began to treat wounded soldiers with blood transfusions. Initially, blood was transferred directly between two people; a US doctor then realised that it would be more efficient to build up a store of blood. This led to the creation of the world’s first ever blood bank, where blood could be kept in cold storage for up to 28 days and then taken to those areas of the Front where it was needed the most.

4. Innovations in Treatment

There were a number of improvements in treatment in the First World War significantly improved survival rates – such as the Thomas splint, named after Welsh surgeon Hugh Owen Thomas, and which was used to support a broken leg. The results of the treatment were astounding – at the start of the conflict, 80% of soldiers with a broken femur died, but by the end of the War this figure had been turned on its head, with 80% surviving the injury.

5. Speed of treatment

From early 1915 the British military medical clearing stations moved closer to the battle field. Casualty clearing stations were also better equipped and, with more surgeons now based closer to the front line, potentially life-saving treatment could be provided much more quickly. Soldiers with wounds would once have been fatal now saw their chances of survival massively increased.

1 comment

  1. Carol Harris says:

    Massive improvements in the treatment of, and survival rates from head injuries is worth mentioning too. Replacing the mainly cloth helmets with steel ones resulted in a massive drop in deaths and a consequent increase in head injuries.
    Here’s a ref:
    Boake C, Diller L (2005). “History of rehabilitation for traumatic brain injury”. In High WM, Sander AM, Struchen MA, Hart KA. Rehabilitation for Traumatic Brain Injury. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-517355-4. Retrieved 2008-11-06.

    Another issue that rather interests me is the improvement in the health of soldiers in the British Army in WW1. As the war went on, working class soldiers benefitted from the diet, which was a great improvement on the food they ate as civilians.

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