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Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Wednesday Spotlight: Ginger Hanson
Unlike today’s highly paid surgeons, nineteenth-century surgeons got no respect. They actually ranked below general physicians on the professional ladder of life. Thus, my decision to make the hero of Lady Runaway not only an army surgeon, but also a member of the aristocracy caused all kinds of complications. To incorporate the idea, I spent a lot of time studying Regency-era military medicine.
Death stalked the nineteenth century English soldier. In camp, he faced contagious diseases whose cures eluded contemporary physicians. If he survived the crowded, unsanitary conditions to meet the enemy, there was the probability of being killed or wounded.
The severely wounded soldier faced being left unattended on a corpse-strewn battlefield. For him, the lack of on site medical care and an organized plan of evacuation translated into hours, or even days with no one to care for his wound and no way to reach medical care. Help usually came after the action when the regiments sent out parties to sort through the carnage. The wait could and often did kill the injured soldiers.
If a soldier wasn’t too severely wounded, he might go to a dressing-station located near the battlefield. Crude and unhygienic, these dressing-stations were little more than frontline amputation depots. On tables made from doors or planks, the surgeons plied the trade of amputation.
A fact of nineteenth century life, amputation runs through all the military diaries of this time. With no drugs to combat infection, amputation performed competently could be the means of saving a life. For the poor soldier awaiting care, the sight of severed limbs tossed into grisly piles could hardly have seemed a route to health.
If the soldier couldn’t find a dressing-station, he might opt for the general hospital.
The British medical services established hospitals in various larger towns or villages within the territory it occupied prior to any military encounter. Utilizing buildings such as churches, convents or schools, these sites were usually equipped for 300 patients. In an emergency, they could care for more.
By the time of the Napoleonic Wars, the British army had adopted the idea of general hospitals and abandoned the concept of regimental hospitals suggested by Sir John Pringle. An army surgeon during the War of Austrian Succession, Pringle was a proponent of scattering small hospitals among villages and manning them with the regimental medical staff. He believed this type of hospital was better equipped to handle battlefield casualties while leaving the sick, who cannot be moved with the army, in the general hospitals located farther away from the shifting front.
In Lady Runaway, Dev describes the advantages of regimental hospitals to Lady Riana. He is frustrated by the decision to send casualties to the rear which was based on the leaders’ belief this would keep the army as unencumbered as possible.
My research revealed military doctors who fought to improve medical care for the soldiers and I used them as a role model for Dev. While the army surgeon of the Regency era had no field ambulances, antibiotics or anesthesia, by World War I doctors knew about bacteria, anesthesia, antiseptics and X-rays. Measured against the previous centuries of human existence, the years between 1800 and 1899 mark a unprecedented increase in medical knowledge.
If Dev could time travel to the present, he’d be surprised at the advances. He’d also discover that today’s army surgeon has a lot of prestige and a high value on the Marriage Mart.