Military Medic History
Major Jonathan Letterman (seated at left) with his medical staff, Warrenton, Virginia, 1862
As tragic as it is in general, war is good for medicine. The battlefield produces more ways to mend, repair, and study the human body than any other setting can. The battlefield has often been the starting point for medical advances that eventually work as well on civilians as on soldiers. For these advances, we have the military medic to thank.
The military medic is the first person on the scene when a soldier is wounded in battle. The medic frequently holds life in his or her hands, deciding who is well enough to survive rescue and who needs nothing more than comfort during life’s final moments. So important are these frontline doctors that to fire upon a medic when his Red Cross medical insignia is clearly visible constitutes a crime of war. Recognition of this law is universal, a provision of the Geneva Convention.
Surely there’s been someone around to patch up wounds whenever human conflict turned violent but modern wars were the catalyst for the fully regimented system of military medicine practiced today. Military medic history made great strides forward during these times of war:
During the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte at the beginning of the 19th century, ambulances volantes (flying ambulances) became a battlefield standard under the direction of surgeon Dominique Jean Larrey. Until Larrey’s mobile field hospitals existed, wounded soldiers were left where they fell or hauled to the rear line until the battle was over.
American Civil War
Major Jonathan Letterman, a surgeon and Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac, established an integrated system of frontline treatment and evacuation using equipment, facilities, and personnel dedicated to the medical aspects of war without the burden of soldiering.
A joint publication by the National Research Council and the National Academy of Sciences published “Accidental Death and Disability: The Neglected Disease of Modern Society (1966).” The report compared the outcome of emergency medical services provided by the US medical corps to seriously wounded soldiers in Vietnam with the outcome of people seriously injured in traffic accidents in California. The soldiers fared much better.
By the end of World War II, the merits of a dedicated team of combat medics had been clearly demonstrated. The Medical Service Corps Act became effective on August 4, 1947.