John Dilley’s WWI Blog: Surgical miracles of war

John Dilley.
John Dilley.
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August 22, 1916 – medical miracles try to find balance against the weapons of mass destruction

“Mankind is under a sentence of life and petitioning to have it commuted to death.”

These are the despairing words of Victorian poet Francis Thompson, reproduced in the August 22, 1916, edition of the Market Harborough Advertiser in a story headlined: Surgical Miracles of the War.

The story, which runs to more than a full column, is sourced from the Daily Telegraph and details a ‘press trip’, where a number of Fleet Street journalists were shown around half a dozen military hospitals to see for themselves the havoc that is wrought on the fragile human body by the terrible power of mankind’s invention in creating weapons of mass destruction.

The report says ‘it would be indecent to describe the most calamitous of these cases’ as the aim is, of course, to highlight how very clever men are trying to combat the evil of the high explosive bombs, the speed and versatility of the machine gun, and the insidious stealth of the poison gases; in short, the men who are creating ‘surgical triumphs which have restored to life its colour and movement’.

“The outstanding lesson of the military hospitals is that the ravages of war are being more successfully combated than ever before,” says the report.

“Limbs are being saved which formerly would have had to come off for gangrene, and cripples are being uncrippled who formerly would have become cripples for life. The X-rays and the new antiseptic treatments have resulted in miracles.”

The story highlights some incredible case studies, including one about a man whose broken leg was badly set.

“An X-ray showed the two bones of the fracture to overlap by no less than two and half inches (8cm). The surgeons, cutting away only an eighth of an inch of the two bones, brought them together perfectly and fixed them in position with a steel plate, which remains screwed to the bone.”

The tale ends with a triumphant note: “The man will be able to walk as well as ever.”

There was also a case study of a man who had lost four inches of a nerve in his arm. His ever-resourceful surgeon telephoned a number of hospitals and ‘learned that a man was to have his leg off that afternoon’.

The limb was put into a saline bath and then transported across London by taxi where the patient lay waiting, already under anaesthetic. The surgeon then took the nerve from the amputated ‘limb, still blood-warm’ and transferred it into the arm – with successful results.

Two of the most remarkable operations performed in the London military hospitals resulted in removing a bullet from a man’s lung and a piece of shrapnel from another man’s heart – both aided by the relatively new X-ray technology.

The heart operation is described in quite gruesome detail. “The surgeon, during the course of the operation, had to put his hand behind the heart and take away the shrapnel – which was of the size of a half penny – with his fingers.

“Fortunately there was no spurt of blood when the shrapnel was removed and the operation, having been performed in March, the man is now perfectly well.”

The report also highlights the remarkable benefits of anaesthetics with ‘thousands of persons every day’ being put to sleep for operation.

And report also extols the recovery time, in language that a hundred years later brings smile to our 21 st century faces: “Within a quarter hour of the completion of anaesthesia, after an operation which may have lasted three or four hours, the patient can be brought round completely enough to enable him, if he wishes, to smoke a cigarette.”