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MIHE Blog News, views and insights from Macmillan International Higher Education

How World War I Changed Medicine

by Jennifer Lawrence 12th March 2019

World War I changed the world in ways that still have a huge impact on us today. Jennifer Lawrence looks at the major medical changes that have helped shape our healthcare.

In November 1918, the armistice which ended four years of global conflict was signed. The end of World War I (or the Great War, as it was then known) signified an end to the fighting, but it was only a beginning to the unfolding of the monumental impacts the war had on the world. The political reorganization of Europe and the Middle East continue to reverberate today. So, too, has the impact of the innovations of the era. While many of these innovations mechanized methods of killing, other innovations were truly helpful to society. These were the medical innovations of the war.

Revealing X-rays

While the doctors and nurses of World War I didn’t have antibiotics in their arsenal of treatment plans, they did develop and deploy a staggering number of new medical treatments for the soldiers injured by this war. These treatments have been expanded and built upon in the last century. X-rays of injured limbs became a standard practice during the war.
Photo by rawpixel. Available on Unsplash via the Unsplash License.
After the war X-rays became a go-to diagnostic tool for those with similar injuries, and today, can be found in the doctor’s offices of most primary care physicians. If someone twists their ankle walking to work, they can receive an X-ray easily to make sure they don’t have a fracture. This basic type of scan has given way to other types of body scans such as CT and MRI scans allowing doctors a “look inside” the human body that was only first widely available in medicine during World War I.

Transformative transfusions

The injuries during the war often caused a patient to lose a lot of blood. Finding ways to successfully provide blood transfusions became an important part of stabilizing the patients and providing a better outcome. Improvements in storing blood and rapid blood-typing tests meant that in World War I blood transfusions could be done in the field for the first time. In the 21st century, blood transfusions have become a reliable and expected method of helping patients overcome blood loss and the risk of shock. Blood banks and blood drives have become regular features in communities across the world. You can even donate blood for your own upcoming surgery. When there is a natural disaster, the appeal for blood donations is one way to help a devastated community.

New insights in neurology

In World War I, there was also improved treatment of patients where their injury may not have been immediately noticeable. Concussions had been little understood before the war and neurologists did not always comprehend what the long term effects of this type of head trauma could be. From studying injured soldiers in the war, new protocols were developed to better protect patients. Making sure those who suffered concussions were observed and assessed by medical staff even if that patient seemed initially fine developed into expected practice. Doctors realized during the war that there were more lingering effects from head trauma than they had ever realized. This realization has been further proven by new information about CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) that has emerged from cases of repeated head trauma and professional athletes in the 21st century.
Doctors realized during the war that there were more lingering effects from head trauma than they had ever realized.

Beyond these examples, progress in orthopedics and plastic surgery changed the lives of the patients in the war and the hundreds of thousands of future patients in the intervening century. While the medicine of World War I may feel distant at this juncture in time, people benefit every day from the medical innovations and progress developed during the war, making a real difference to our lives in the 21st century.
Featured image: Photo by Stijn Swinnen. Available on Unsplash via the Unsplash License.