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The Other Letterman

Volume 5 Issue 2 Fall-Winter 2018-19
By Madison Monroe


Under the blistering sun, the stench of death continued to grow as the wounded lay waiting on the battlefield. Hours stretched into days and the days into a week. Each hour more soldiers died. Each hour more slipped into a coma. Those were the lucky ones. The unlucky cried and moaned in pain, waiting for crucial medical care that had not yet arrived.

When the medics finally reached the wounded, there was no protocol to classify the injuries. The soldiers were treated in the order that the physician got to them as they stepped over dead bodies, surveying for any that might still be alive. As substandard as the medical care was for the wounded, it was not how most soldiers perished. Two-thirds of the troops were lost to disease.

When Jonathan Letterman graduated from medical school, he joined the Army and for the next thirteen years traveled around North America treating injured soldiers. The technology of weapons had advanced far beyond battlefield medicine. Letterman’s ability as a surgeon was essentially useless. Most wounded soldiers never made it off the battlefield alive.

Fueled by his medical knowledge of infection and his aversion to unnecessary suffering, Letterman proposed a plan to stop both. The first matter of business was to institute base camp hygiene procedures. With more sanitary practices of waste disposal and food handling, the disease rate decreased by one-third. Next he tackled the immense endeavor of creating an entirely new system to classify the wounded and transport them to specialist physicians with exacting experience to treat the particular injury that the soldier suffered. An ambulance corps and triage classification was instated.

Though little known, Major Jonathan Letterman is considered the father of our modern battlefield medicine. His organization and management of the wounded, during the 1860’s American Civil War, has saved over 1.3 million lives since inception and is still used today. 

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