The Center for the History of Medicine recently digitized a remarkable collection of Civil War-era images titled Photographs of surgical cases and specimens. Nearly 150 years after it was first published, this six-volume set provides a sobering look at the state of the art in surgery during and after the war. The imagery in the collection is vivid, starkly illustrating the terrible effects of developing warfare technology on the human body, while the detailed case histories that accompany each photograph — recording the names and ranks of soldiers, specific battles, dates of injury, treatment narratives, and final outcomes — provide a wealth of medical and biographical information to scholars and casual readers alike.
Though versions of many of the individual images in the collection have been widely circulated, complete sets in bound volumes are extremely rare, and this is the first time that the entire collection, in its original form, has been made freely available to the public online.
Background & history
At the outset of the Civil War in 1861, the lack of experienced surgeons in the ranks of both the Union and Confederate armies represented a looming medical crisis. In 1862 the United States Army Medical Museum was formed, in part to advance practical research into new ways of treating and diagnosing the types of trauma that had become commonplace on the modern battlefield. Almost immediately after it was established, the museum’s first curator, Dr. John Hill Brinton, began collecting specimens from field hospitals and military grave sites. In the years that followed, individual portraits along with photographs of these specimens and accompanying case histories were disseminated to hospitals and medical institutions around the country.
In 1865, Lieutenant William Bell, who would later gain fame for his photographs of the American West, was appointed Chief Photographer of the museum. The artistic composition and quality of Bell’s work often bore greater resemblance to the celebrated portraiture of Matthew Brady than to standard, utilitarian medical photography. Under the direction of Brinton’s successor, Dr. George Alexander Otis, Bell photographed the portrait sitters and anatomical specimens in a studio at the museum, and was ultimately responsible for the majority of the images that comprise this collection.
The most common and deadly threat on the battlefield at the time was the gunshot wound, which was more prevalent and vastly more traumatic than in previous wars owing to the development of the “Minié ball.” A type of conical musket round, it could be rapidly loaded, then fired accurately and at a velocity high enough to cause devastating flesh wounds and shatter bone at great distances. Surgical cases and specimens includes an exhaustive variety of these types of wounds, illustrated through morbid specimens and portraits of surviving patients, with amputation or excision of joints comprising the majority of surgeries depicted.
This particular edition, which was sent from the museum to John Collins Warren, Jr., was likely assembled and published in the 1870s, and thus it also includes a number of civilian trauma cases from during and after the war that were considered relevant.
A word of caution to readers who wish to browse these books: many of the cases depicted involve extremely gruesome injuries that can, at times, be shocking to look at. Also, when reading the books online, it is important to note that each case history will appear on the page directly following the photograph it describes.
Volumes I-VI of Surgical cases and specimens were digitized by the Center for the History of Medicine as part of our ongoing contributions to the Medical Heritage Library. A collaborative online collection of primary source materials held by some of the world’s leading medical libraries, the Medical Heritage Library presently contains over 35,000 individual volumes that cover a broad range of topics within the domain of medical history, including hundreds of items relating to various aspects of Civil War medicine. To read more about the MHL and its contributing partners, or to browse the collection, visit www.medicalheritage.org.