Glowing Wounds and the Civil War

My mom loves to tell tales of the experiments we kids conducted when we were young. My brother Jonathan investigated combustion in the dry meadows behind our house and made gunpowder in the attic. I tended a "mycological garden" in the kitchen--an unfinished casserole that I'd forbidden my mom to throw out so I could see what grew.

And I, too, developed powerful explosives--although what caused the fritters I was frying one day to go BANG! and splatter all over the ceiling remains a mystery. (I am presently consulting with the editor of the Food section so I may finally find closure on this issue.)

Possibly, scientist Phyllis Martin feels rather more proud of her kid's exploits (although you never know--my mom has a perverse streak). After all, her son, Bill Martin, and his schoolmate Jonathan Curtis won an international science fair prize for their project, "Civil War Wounds That Glowed."

Glowed? If it wasn't frightening enough to be in bloody battles in a period of history lacking antibiotics, just imagine suffering a wound that gleamed back at you. Yet the Civil War soldiers with glowing wounds were lucky, in a way--their injuries were less likely to develop gangrene.

Curtis and Martin, both Maryland high school students, decided to investigate why. Martin is a Civil War buff. His mom is a scientist with the U.S. Agricultural Research Service who spends her days waging war on Colorado potato beetles--a pastime that proved surprisingly relevant to the glowing wounds issue.

Turns out one of the beetle-fighting strategies Martin senior had pursued involved a little bacterium with the big name Photorhabdus luminescens . Latin buffs will smugly go "Aha!" at this point, knowing that "luminescens" means something along the lines of "glow." And glow the bug does.

Curtis and Martin did experiments in lab that showed that strains of P. luminescens produce chemicals that seem to inhibit the growth of certain bacteria (although the students were not allowed to play with the gangrene microbe itself). Their theory: The microbe got into wounds and stopped nastier, gangrene-causing bacteria from thriving.

To learn more about Civil War medicine, we called Steven Frysinger, a science and technology professor at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. He's extensively researched the topic--and done his share of rushing about fields in battle reenactments as an assistant surgeon for the federal side.

There are many myths about Civil War medicine, Frysinger says. In movies, one might see soldiers pouring whisky on comrades' wounds--so the alcohol could act as an antiseptic.

"They wouldn't have done that--they would have said it was insane," Frysinger says. The germ theory of disease wasn't yet widely believed. Surgeons didn't wash their hands between patients; their instruments still had wooden handles--good for gripping but not for sterilizing.

On the plus side, bloodletting was pretty much out of vogue. And battle surgeons weren't butchers: They were pretty skilled, Frysinger says. They knew how to resection limbs--to slice out the destroyed part of a bone and then press the two good ends back together to save a limb. Even so, amputation was common due to the sheer number of wounded. A resection took an hour. An amputation took six to seven minutes.

The Civil War also taught surgeons efficient ways to get wounded men off battlefields and treat them. At the start of the war, men could lie on the battlefield for 48 hours--hazardous not the least because hogs would come feed on the wounded. Or five soldiers would carry a comrade to safety, possibly making injuries worse and certainly cutting down on those left to fight the battle. Ambulance carts were often unavailable because they were carrying officers' baggage.

Later, the U.S. Army Medical Service was completely reorganized. It had dedicated ambulance carts and litters, wound-dressing stations out of musket range and hospitals out of artillery range. And instead of treating patients haphazardly, the concept of triage was developed: dividing the wounded into those with minor wounds, serious wounds and untreatable ones.

It worked well at Gettysburg, says Frysinger--where all wounded were moved off the field within 24 hours. "That sounds pretty bad," he says, "but it's pretty good, given the tens of thousands of people they were dealing with."


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