Click for more information about our recent presentation from Peter Mullen!

“Infectious Disease and Immunity”

(Civil War Medicine)

Peter Mullen, Retired FL State College Professor

     After a first unsuccessful run at being inducted into the Honorary Kentucky Colonels, 40 years later and 10 governors of Kentucky (source of such appointments), Peter recently made it; he was still celebrating.


     During the Civil War both the North and South practiced “state of the art medicine” but this war was fought at the end of the Medical Middle Ages. Two years typically produced a doctor; however, once the war was underway apprenticeship (most of the physicians) training was accomplished in fifteen months. Knowledge in physiology would be comparable today to a middle school science student. At the beginning of the war the North had 98 doctors and 13,000 at the end. The South had 24 doctors at the beginning and 4,000 at the end. About 4,000 nurses served both sides.


     Looking at the death count, relatively few died of wounds themselves; disease, including disease caused by wounds, was the biggest killer. 360,000 northerners lost their lives and 260,000 southerners. In four years between 100 and 200 times more soldiers died than in all the years in Iraq. The civilian count, including starvation mainly in the South where the war was hosted, put up rival numbers.


     Louisville was the major medical center for both sides. Two levels of field hospital preceded getting there. Appreciate that only 150 years ago at this time medicine did not even know that blood circulated. There were absolutely no antibiotics. In France Louis Pasteur was just beginning to transform medical knowledge. Hindsight in this death toll reveals to us there were seven major microorganisms (unknown then and therefore without treatment).


     Dietary contrasts between North and South were interesting, too detailed to report here. Both diets were out of sight with high bad carbs and highly salted protein. Even though in limited quantity, they messed huge with immune systems. “Traveling” tent stores owned by entrepreneurs followed the troops selling moonshine, tobacco, sardines and cheese. If only the soldiers had saved some money for sardines and cheese, the health damage might have been quite different.


    Ambulance service moved at 3 mph, horse drawn. Hospital trains went to Louisville for both sides. Peter shared the film footage from “Gone with the Wind” that so accurately depicted this. Both sides respected each other’s primitive medical efforts and treatments. Many medicines used were toxic, most of them inappropriate and ineffective in their intended use. Some of the worst experimental medicines were used blindly where the eventual discovered antibiotics would have saved hundreds of thousands.


    Peter takes some flack for perpetuating the memory of this war, but the historical lessons to be learned from it are too great not to remember. A favorite quote of his goes, “Tomorrow’s futures rely on our memories of yesterday’s pasts.” So his presentation ended.