Learning from History

February 1, 2010 at 8:49 am 1 comment

The following letter has been sent to a number of media outlets.  It is the mission of the Museum and the Letterman Institute to improve the future by learning from the past.  Unfortunately history can not be used for positive change when the media continues to reiterate false, negative stereotypes regarding that history.  Here is our editorial about this important issue. 

Please feel free to leave your comments below, we want to hear what you think!

                The news of the recent earthquake in Haiti has sent a flood of assistance and money to that impoverished and now critically stricken country.  Who cannot be moved to action by dire needs of our close southern neighbor?  It further saddens me to hear of the continued suffering of those injured as they struggle to find adequate care in the face of complete destruction of their country.  Medical relief workers, who are dealing with a lack of infrastructure and supplies, are accused of practicing “Civil War” medicine.

                Unfortunately, it is not Civil War medicine that is the problem.  The problem is the failure of our society to understand the lessons that Civil War medicine can teach.  When we think of Civil War medical treatment, we correctly see unsanitary conditions, antiquated instruments and a general lack of the technology we expect today.  What we fail to see is that our modern emergency response systems and protocols were born of this now distant war. Understanding the true lessons of the Civil War could relieve the sufferings of thousands if the popular myths could only be left behind. 

                The Civil War gave us our first system of medical logistics, modern emergency room organization and management structures, triage, medical records, medical communications and intelligence, organized first aid and evacuation procedures.  Our Civil War caregivers gave us a system that would become the ambulance and 911 communications networks of the current day.  Faced with unthinkable numbers of wounded and sick in an environment where modern communications and transportation did not exist, our ancestors devised innovative low-tech solutions to our most critical medical problems. 

                Recently the Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan named the medical dormitories after Major Jonathan Letterman who commanded Union medical staffs at Antietam and Gettysburg.  A bronze plaque located there is a testimony to the lessons learned from the man whose “Letterman Plan” became the basis for much of our modern emergency medical system.  This honor is not a hollow one.  Letterman’s writings have been instrumental in plans to improve medical communications systems in Iraq and even lower airframe maintenance and fuel costs of Air Force medical transportation flights.   Civil War medicine has a broader reach than most would expect.

                These seemingly ancient protocols have proven themselves not only on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan but also in the aftermath of Katrina and the recent tsunami.  Over 3,500 military and civilian caregivers have been trained in these Civil War systems and processes over the last four years and have achieved great things around the world.  Numerous citations have been awarded to these professionals who are using the past to push innovation forward.  Unfortunately, as Haiti reminds us, we still have a great number of organizations and caregivers who have not yet heard this lifesaving message. 

                We need to change our opinions of the past.  If we continue to look at history as a frightening era to be mocked and avoided, then we will never learn the lessons needed to improve our future.  Those who are using the lessons of the past are now reaping the benefits.  More importantly, their patients and those they assist are reaping the true benefits.  We need to wake up and see that Civil War medicine is not something to be mocked and feared, but contains lessons for the future that can improve the quality of emergency planning and medical care.  

 Submitted to the press on Jan. 31, 2010


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The love of Learning! History as a Guide

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Judith C.  |  February 3, 2010 at 3:12 pm

    This is so true – and so relevant. Hopefully many will see the wisdom in what is written here and begin to actually learn from the past rather than mock it. The medical practices of the Civil War are so misunderstood. I truly hope people will begin to see it in a different light with the help of this blog.


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