Thursday, January 17, 2008

Minié balls and infection before penicillin

"Hospital Gangrene of an Arm Stump" painted by Edward Stauch.

A misconception that I had for years was the the Minié ball rifle bullets used in the Crimean War (1853-1856) and then by both sides in the US Civil War (1861-1865) were 'mini-balls' and were therefore small. They are actually named after their inventor, a French Army Captain named Claude-Étienne Minié. And they are very far from small, being mainly in 0.58", and 0.69" caliber sizes. That's more like the size of a paintball (0.68") than a modern rifle bullet (0.30" or 0.22"). There are now military reasons to favor the smaller bullet such as reduced recoil with greater accuracy and range.

The huge Minié ball, with its high muzzle velocity and soft lead composition, that flattened out on entering the body, produced terrible wounds. The heavy rounds would completely shatter bones they struck and in many cases the surgeon would amputate the limb rather than risk an infection that was invariably fatal. In fact the most common operation during the Civil War was amputation. Most amputations were necessary because when a Minié Ball struck a soldier, it carried dirt and bacteria into the wound. Despite the amputations many soldiers died of infection. With our knowledge of bacteria and infection it seems like a wonder that anyone survived but amputation, if done quickly, was a life saver. If the amputation was done within 24 hours of the injury then there was a 50% chance of survival. Because of this necessity to amputate, and to amputate quickly, civil war surgeons acquired a reputation for being too hasty with the saw. I'm happy to do my part in correcting this misconception for there is little doubt the surgeons saved many lives whilst working in conditions so appalling that I really don't want to think about it. You can read more about civil war surgery and some misconceptions about it here.


Shay said...

I really enjoyed this article...I am so interested in Civil War Surgery procedures.

Shay said...

I really enjoyed your blog. I love anything pertaining to the civil war. I find it so interesting. Especially their medical practices...