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In rare cases, the horrors of war can  bring about surprisingly positive results, such as DV  guest columnist Sarah Ashbridge’s topic for this week’s #WorldWarWednesday: Marvelous Medical Advances

World War One was the first period of major conflict during which mortality from battle injuries exceeded deaths from disease. The industrial scale of the warfare brought about swift innovations in medical care, many of which continue to improve and save lives to this day.

Hippocrates, an ancient Greek physician considered to be the father of Western medicine, wrote that ‘war is the only proper school for a surgeon’, and WW1 is a prime example of wide-spread suffering changing the face of modern medicine. Let’s have a look at five mad medical advances developed during World Wars One and Two:


Before the First World War, men were removed from the battlefield by stretchers. This war saw the introduction of horrific new methods of warfare, including land mines, tanks, flame-throwers and gas attacks, with men fighting from trenches, rather than on foot or horseback. Thus, the nature of treatment had to change too. Motorised ambulances and trains were introduced, making the process of removing men from the battlefield much faster, which increased their chances of recovery.

Blood transfusion

In 1900, the four main blood groups were discovered, which helped surgeons develop new methods of blood transfusions during WW1. As studies into blood typing and anti-coagulants (medicine which reduces blood clotting) progressed, the Army used this to their advantage, creating the world’s first blood bank. In 1921 civilian blood banks were created, which evolved into the National Blood Transfusion Service we have today. The availability of blood improved the standard of surgery.


Shelling and general trench warfare meant that men suffered extreme injuries. With the new availability of blood for transfusions, larger, longer operations could be performed. Improved artificial limbs were developed in response to large numbers of amputations.

Great advances in plastic surgery were made as a result of war, with the first hospital devoted to operating on soldier’s facial injuries opening in Sidcup, Kent in 1917. This hospital had over 1,000 beds and patients were treated by Sir Harold Gillies, a surgeon who developed specific techniques to treat the aggressive injuries caused by the industrial style of warfare. Two months after opening, Walter Yeo was the first ever patient to receive plastic surgery, featuring Gillies’ newly developed method of skin grafting.


Though Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in 1928 was initially overlooked, the need for effective treatment of infection control in troops fighting in World War Two saw the development of the drug. Penicillin was used to treat wounded men after D-Day, and was found to be an effective treatment for gangrene. It was also used as a treatment for men waiting for surgery, meaning the wound had less time to fester, greatly increasing chance of survival. Treatments for tropical diseases such as malaria were also developed- great news for the soldiers fighting in more exotic conditions.


Marie Curie, disheartened by the destruction of war, launched a project to develop a radiological service for the French army, bringing X-ray machines closer to the battlefield. She developed vehicles into mobile x-ray units and worked with equipment manufacturers to develop x-ray machines suitable for transport, as well asportable electric generators. Curie trained staff herself, continuously implementing improvements. X-rays allowed doctors to locate wounds and find hidden bullets or shrapnel, meaning treatment was more precise, reducing pain and saving lives. Between 1917-1918 more than one million x-rays were taken – now that’s insightful!

 See you next week for another #WorldWarWednesday!

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Sarah Ashbridge

Office monkey by day, forensic archaeologist by night, Sarah Ashbridge is a jack-of-all-trades and the master of one: the forensic identification the War Dead. She trained originally as an Egyptologist, but interests in the history of death and burial saw her make the step into archaeology, completing an MSc in Forensic Archaeology and Crime Scene Investigation at the University of Bradford. Armed with an ever-increasing library of books, a handful of illustration pens and a brand new trowel, Sarah writes our regular #WWWednesday column, working towards her PhD in Forensic Archaeology.

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