World War’s Medical and Health Care Legacy

As we pause on the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, we remember with gratitude the great sacrifice made by a generation to secure our freedom. We also remember that through the horror of war came vital medical breakthroughs and health care advances that we are still benefiting from today. Here are a few…


The Thomas Splint, still used on the battlefield today, was invented by Welshman, Hugh Owen Thomas. But it was his nephew, Robert Jones, General Inspector for Orthopaedics in the military, who ensured the invention was used to great advantage during WWI.

Robert observed the needless deaths arising from injuries of the femur, caused by blood loss and severe shock from the broken ends of the bone moving and grating together. At the beginning of the conflict, 80% of soldiers with such injuries died. Two years later, and with the introduction of the Thomas Splint, 80% survived.

X-Ray Imaging

First invented in 1895 by a German doctor, Wilhelm Rontgen, X-ray imaging played a significant role in the lives of those wounded in World War One.

After the First Battle of the Marne in 1914, scientist, Marie Curie, went to the front line with a vital supply of X-ray machines. Working alongside the Red Cross, they equipped hundreds of vehicles with these machines, creating radiological ambulances for those wounded at the front. These vehicles came to be known as ‘petite curies’ and by the end of the war one million wounded men had been helped by this technology. X-rays machines were also set up in hospitals, and radiology has since been used for the benefit of millions.

Treatment for infections

Due to lack of hygiene during the war, and the numerous injuries and conditions, the threat of death due to gangrene was ever present. French surgeon, Alexis Carrel, and English chemist, Henry Drysdale Dakin, developed the Carrel-Dakin chlorine-based antiseptic. It was to be effective in disinfecting traumatic wounds and saving countless lives.

Generalized vaccination against contagious diseases were also used extensively during WWI, reducing the risk of typhoid fever epidemics. The tetanus vaccine, first developed in 1917, was also introduced to great effect.

Blood Transfusions

Canadian surgeon, Bruce Robertson, introduced new successful transfusion techniques during WWI. However, it was Belgian doctor, Albert Hustin, who revolutionised the process with the addition of citrate to blood, with its anticoagulant properties. This meant that the blood could be conserved and transported to where it was needed. Army doctors were then able to carry out the transfusions at the front, greatly increasing the chances of recovery for seriously wounded soldiers. This was a major advance in first-aid and emergency care.

Reconstructive Surgery

The First World War took combat to a new level and introduced heavy artillery, machine guns and poison gas. The circumstances of trench warfare were to cause unprecedented levels of horrific facial injuries. Shells filled with shrapnel were to blame for many of these, specifically designed to cause maximum damage. Front line surgeons did not have the resources to do anything other than stitch together gaping wounds. As the wounds healed, the flesh tightened and contorted the face.

Harold Gillies, a New Zealand surgeon who trained in England, witnessed first-hand the rise of facial disfigurement as a result of this new type of warfare. Returning to England from the front he established The Queen’s Hospital at Frognal House, Sidcup. It was the world’s first hospital dedicated to the treatment of facial injuries. He pioneered new ways of moving and grafting healthy tissue to where it was needed in order to reconstruct the faces of the injured soldiers. Today, Gillies is often referred to as the ‘father of plastic surgery’. Many of the techniques he developed during the First World War are still used in modern reconstructive surgeries.

Aquarate, Continuing the Health Care Advance

Brave men and women sacrificed their skills, talents and lives to bring relief and comfort to those in need. Although we have none of the pressures they experienced, Aquarate is committed to advancing medical technology to bring help to others.

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