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Medical Treatments of the Revolutionary War. During the American Revolutionary War, more soldiers died from illness than from combat. What do you know about medicine during the 18 th and 19 th century that may have allowed for this?. Medicine in Colonial America.

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During the American Revolutionary War, more soldiers died from illness than from combat.

What do you know about medicine during the 18th and 19th century that may have allowed for this?

medicine in colonial america
Medicine in Colonial America
  • Much of the common information we know today about germs, cleanliness, stopping the spread of disease, and treating illnesses was not yet discovered during the 18th and 19th centuries.
revolutionary medical care
Revolutionary Medical Care
  • What factors do you think influenced the quality of medical care during the Revolutionary War?
      • Skill of Physicians
      • Disease Treatments
      • Hospitals
      • Health Conditions
      • Surgical Procedures
revolutionary medical care5
Revolutionary Medical Care
  • There was no medical college in the colonies before the Revolution, what does this tell you about the skill of colonial doctors?
  • The practice of bloodletting for treating almost any disease was common; and if the doctor was not at hand, this was done by the barber.
  • Hardly any drugs or anesthetics were used.
  • Bloodletting is the removal or large amounts of blood from a patient’s body.
  • The practice of bloodletting began in the ancient world.
  • Ancient Greeks, Aztecs, and Egyptians used bloodletting because they believed that many diseases were caused by having too much blood.
  • At the beginning of the war, little carefulness was used when determining who could and could not practice medicine on the battlefield. Why do you think this was so?
  • Army physicians, like most physicians at the time, were uneducated.
  • Each doctor had their own way of treating injuries and illnesses, which led to very unusual medical care.

If you were a member of the Continental Congress, what would you do to fix this problem of inadequate medical treatment?

hospital department for the army
Hospital Department for the Army
  • The Continental Congress created the Hospital Department for the Army.
  • This department established acceptable treatments of injuries and illnesses.
  • In addition, it created a detailed list of appropriate qualifications of physicians to ensure that all physicians were educated.
health conditions
Health Conditions
  • Poor health conditions posed even more problems to medical treatment during the Revolutionary War.
  • What were the living and working conditions of soldiers living in camps?
      • Living in close quarters, often outside
      • Malnutrition
      • Fatigue

What effect could these conditions have on their immune system?

health conditions11
Health Conditions
  • The military tried desperately to regulate cleanliness of camps and bedding as well as provide what was considered a “balanced diet” in the form of rations.
health conditions12
Health Conditions
  • But keeping the camps supplied with a proper diet and clean and substantial clothing was difficult throughout the course of the War. Soldiers often went weeks without changing clothes.
  • In this environment, diseases ran through the camps at a rapid pace.
  • Many types of hospitals were used during the Revolutionary War.
  • This hospital environment was usually set up in a local home or community near the army\'s camp.
  • Although many local citizens and volunteers offered care for the injured soldiers, these hospitals were still viewed as “sewers of impurities.”

Do you think these hospitals would have been very effective at treating wounded or injured soldiers?

  • Other soldiers were sent to a general hospital.
  • This type of hospital treated all soldiers with all illnesses and was set up for longer term care.
  • These types of hospitals could be horrible places to recover. Over crowding, lack of supplies, and often lack of cleanliness made the death rate very high in these hospitals.

What would have been some effective ways to lower the death rate in these hospitals?


Bloodletting was a common practice used in the 18th and 19th centuries. It involved removing considerable amounts of blood from a patient in order to cure diseases or illnesses. Bloodletting was often done prior to performing surgeries or treating burns.

Amputation, the removal of a limb, was a very common practice during the Revolutionary War. These surgeries were often performed with no anesthetic. Not only were extensively wounded limbs amputated, but also limbs with wounds that were highly infected.

Early in the War, as many soldiers left their homes for the first time, they were highly sensitive to diseases they had never before encountered, such as smallpox and typhus. As the war continued, soldiers began to naturally increase their immune systems and build-up a tolerance to some of the diseases that had earlier put the army in danger.

Burns were also a common wound on the battle field. Burns were treated with applications of wine or hog’s lard. Burns were often not covered, which led to severe infection.

If a bullet could not be easily located, surgeons were advised to let it remain in the patient. Most of these surgeries were performed while the patient was still awake!

Wounds containing “foreign matter” like dirt or small pieces of metal were left open so that the pus could bring the debris to the surface. Unfortunately, this also allowed more dirt to enter the wound. To stop bleeding, turpentine was used. Which also proved to be antibacterial. Wounds were also treated with rum or wine to prevent infection.

Simple fractures were usually set with simple slings. Compound fractures, however, were much harder to set. As with other serious wounds, surgeons often chose to amputate the arm or leg rather than risking infection

During the Revolutionary War, bullets were made out of lead. The owner of the gun made their own bullets using a bullet mold, molten lead, and gunpowder

  • Blood Letting
  • Amputation
  • Bullet excision
  • Burn treatment
  • Smallpox & Typhus
  • Setting broken bones
  • Wound Treatment
  • The most common type of surgery performed was the removal of bullets from gunshot wounds.

A surgeon’s amputation and general surgery tool kit.

  • Since no drugs or anesthetics had been developed, surgeons had to work fast!
  • Surgery was extremely painful for the patient.
  • Unfortunately, because of poor sanitation, most surgical wounds eventually became infected.
  • To avoid infection, doctors often resorted to amputation.

What were some of the health conditions at the time that increased the risk of infection, how could infection have been avoided?

  • It was not until the mid 1800’s that sterile surgical procedures, such as wearing gloves, were recommended in order to prevent infections.
  • In 1867, Joseph Lister discovered that spraying surgical tools, surfaces, and surgical incisions with carbolic acid drastically reduced the chance of the patient getting an infection.
stopping the spread
Stopping the Spread
  • Unfortunately, these discoveries were made well after the Revolutionary War, but they have helped shape the field of medical and disease treatment during later wars, and have helped to significantly reduced the number of deaths due to disease and infection.

Click to see the advancement of medical treatment through some of America’s Wars.