Approximately 750,000 people were killed over four years during the American Civil War, two-thirds of these fatalities were caused by disease. This staggering death count was a shock to American physicians who were unregulated, undertrained and operating in the dark. But the war also offered opportunities. In the laboratory of the battlefield, medical practitioners gained access to an abundance of cadavers as well as demand for more efficient structures of organisation and dissemination of knowledge. Historians have debated the extent that war alters medicine. In her book, Learning from the Wounded, historian Shauna Devine argues that in the case of the American Civil War, the violence had a profound and lasting influence on American medical science and practice. In this episode of On War and Society, Devine speaks with Kyle Falcon about historical myths, the politics of the body and the lessons that can be learned for new generations of medical practitioners when we place the American Civil War under the knife.

Amputation being performed in a hospital tent, Gettysburg, July 1863.

Shauna Devine is an Assistant Professor in the Department of the History of Medicine at the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry, Western University.