Ambulances, the nursing profession and many other touchstones of modern medicine can trace their American roots to the Civil War, according to a new museum near the Gettysburg and Antietam battlefields.
At the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Md., which opened this month, visitors also will learn that germs and not bullets killed most of those who died in the war.
"Of the 600,000 dead, two died to disease for every one killed in battle," said Burton Kummerow, the museum's executive director.
"Bad food and bad water made many sick. There was also a general lack of sanitation at the beginning of the war. The latrines were often near the drinking water supplies," he said.
Several major medical advances came out of the war, including the development of modern hospitals and medical evacuation techniques, the birth of the nursing profession and the first widespread use of anesthesia, Kummerow said.
"In 1862, during McClellan's peninsular campaign, the wounded were on the field for seven days," he said. "By the time Gettysburg came along, they had everybody off the battlefield every night."
But perhaps the most important advancement was the realization of how little actually was known about medicine, said Dale Smith, chairman of the Department of Medical History at the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda.
Many doctors did not have an adequate knowledge of anatomy, partly because only three states had passed laws before the war providing a method for universities to obtain human bodies for educational purposes. The lack of such laws led to a black-market trade in bodies and "burking," the killing of people in order to sell their bodies, Smith said.
"The realization that we had a hit-and-miss system of medical education was brought to the forefront," Smith said. "That's the biggest social impact in terms of medicine on American society."
Museum exhibits will feature a hospital ward, ambulance, medical devices and histories of important medical figures. The museum occupies the first floor of a three-story Civil War-era building. Curators plan to expand the museum to the upper floors in the future.
The Civil War is already a strong tourist attraction in the region. The Gettysburg battlefield 30 miles away in southern Pennsylvania draws 1.5 million visitors a year, and the Antietam battlefield 25 miles away draws another 300,000 visitors a year.
Kummerow hopes the museum will be of interest to women, who may not be as interested in the military aspects of the war.
"We have a potentially strong new audience here," Kummerow said. "This is not all about killing and maiming. This is about caring."