I’m not the greatest of people with squeamish stuff – graphic descriptions of nasty wounds make me toes curl. I studied ‘medicine through time’ for GCSE History, and even then medical history, although interesting, would make my stomach churn. Yet despite that, I could never deny that Medical History is interesting. Its at an intersection between history and science. And more often than not, most medical advances are inspired by war. And this book is a prime of example of a skilled medic who honed his skills during war time.
George Guthrie is one of the unsung heroes of the Napoleonic Wars. Not only was he one of the most forward thinking surgeons of his time, he also kept detailed case records and statistics, which here are edited by Michael Crumplin, himself a retired surgeon.
There are some pretty gruesome cases described here. Its not surprising that terrible wounds shock us, as most Hollywood films show the hero being shot cleanly through the heart, saying ‘tell Jane that I love her’ and then lolloping his head to one side. As Guthrie shows, bullets do not make nice neat holes, neither do swords. As a Historian I would be pretty much lost trying to make sense of some of the more scientific details, so its a smart move for Guthrie’s account to be edited by a doctor.
War gives the surgeon many more opportunities to examine the human anatomy, that in peacetime would only come from dissecting dead bodies. And the opportunity to get to grips with complex trauma wounds led to discoveries and innovations – Guthrie found that when amputating limbs a tourniquet was not always necessary, and that all an assitant needed to do was apply firm pressure on the right arteries. Guthrie also developed an understanding of how to run hospitals with minimising the risk of infection and disease in mind.
We often find that the treatment and suffering of wounded during wars brings about a national outcry – particularly the Crimean War, the First World War and to a lesser extent the current Afghan War and Help for Heroes. The Napoleonic Wars might not have caused a revolution in nursing like the Crimea, nor the forming of charities such as after 1918. But its effects were more subtle – slowly, the authorities began to see the importance of good medical services to warfighting. Much as Wellington won his battles partly through solid logistical organistation, he also made medical services an inherent part of planning, and not just a bolt-on.
Interestingly, it seems that Guthrie came up opposition from his contemporaries, particularly on his policy of only amputating when absolutely necessary. If we believe other contemporary accounts – such as Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series, and also accounts of Naval surgery, it would seem that Napoleonic military surgeon’s were knife-happy butchers.
Maybe the historical convention that all Napoleonic-era military surgeons were butchers needs to be re-thought? There also seems to be a convention that the only Napoleonic doctor with any kind of forward-thinking was the Empereur’s personal surgeon, Dr Larrey. Yet this account of Guthrie’s war service suggest that medical science in the British Army was not as barbaric as we might immediately think.