War: An Unexpected Front Field of Science
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War is a gory ordeal, and many soldiers escape it with permanent wounds and scars. It takes strength to endure the traumas of war and we recognize the courage of soldiers by observing Veterans Day each year. Nevertheless, with the messy aspect of war also comes the necessity for urgent medical care for soldiers.
Medical attention for injured soldiers on the battlefield is a practice as old as war itself and is an important part of military organization. For instance, centuries ago, the Roman military pioneered frontline treatment, where soldiers were treated in reserved areas that were kept hygienic to minimize the spread of disease. However, the term “military medicine” is the product of the advancements of the 19th and 20th centuries.
The early battles of the Civil War called for the formation of a more organized medical facility and more efficient evacuation and hospital transportation methods. It also encouraged a compilation of medical information, including medical military ailments, like different wartime injuries and infections. Establishing medical knowledge promoted the significance of scientific research, which has extended its impact to the general population as well. It created new roles and opportunities in medicine, opening positions for nurses, clinical physicians, and more. In fact, World War I saw a huge increase in the number of nurses working in field hospitals near the front line. With many men off to war, many women took over, driving ambulances and taking care of wounded patients both at the battlefield and back home.
Due to the new environments that soldiers are exposed to, the risks of new diseases and infections are always a concern. As a result, the military found it imperative to set up innovative laboratories in military hospitals to track these risks, and it was in these laboratories that many breakthroughs occurred. One instance of this is military research on typhoid, a bacterial infection caused by contaminated water and food. Sir Almroth Wright, a British immunologist, researched typhoid in the former Army Medicine Medical School in England, where he successfully developed a typhoid vaccine and tested it on soldiers from the Colonial Indian army.
Advancements in our knowledge of diseases due to military medicine have also been seen through yellow fever research. Major Walter Reed, a U.S. Army physician, led members of the US Army Yellow Fever Commission in Cuba in 1900 to conduct studies of yellow fever because of an increase in cases during the Spanish-American War. There, they found that yellow fever was transmitted by mosquito bites. An individual could come into contact with a person infected with yellow fever and even the blankets they slept in, but they wouldn’t be infected. Yellow fever could only be transmitted if an infected mosquito bit them. This major discovery saved countless lives and paved the way for yellow fever treatment. The military also helped mass-produce significant medical treatments, such as penicillin, making them more available to the public. Especially during wartime, intensive public health campaigns were launched, such as the promotion of typhoid vaccination.
Along with studying infections and diseases, the military also played a defining role in developing technology for medical treatment. As war weapons become more deadly and injuries become more serious, technology has become essential in tackling these issues. In World War I, the introduction of toxic gases as military weapons disfigured many soldiers’ faces. Maxillofacial surgery, a type of plastic surgery on the face, was developed as a response to facial injuries. Specialists reconstructed soldiers’ faces and attempted to rebuild the jaws and teeth using materials such as metal.
Soldiers’ severe wounds and amputations due to battle injuries have led to major progress in developing prosthetics. Today, army medical research still maintains its significance in the military, and the field has become more revolutionary than ever with state-of-the-art technology. In fact, the US Department of Veterans Affairs, a key player in funding prosthetics research, promotes multiple projects including examining the use of electrodes to send signals to motorized prosthetic limbs, a major leap in amputation therapy. Scientists use neuroscience and improved robotic and prosthetic interfaces to understand our sensations of pressure and touch and implement them into robotic arms.
In regards to detecting infectious diseases in the military, another project covered by the Army Medical Research Command is precise and rapid disease diagnosis, which focuses on boosting testing availability for infectious diseases and has garnered more attention due to COVID-19. The Military Health System has taken many steps to make testing more convenient by setting up pop-up testing sites and working to make the vaccine rollout more efficient. The system uses telemedicine, also known as virtual health, to provide compliant technology to continue medical procedures and checkups even throughout quarantine. In lab work, the military has initiated clinical trials to test the efficacy of antibodies to prevent COVID-19, and military hospitals have developed more efficient and inexpensive ventilators.
Though war is commonly associated with bloodshed, science and medicine play a pivotal role in soldiers’ lives both on the battlefield and back home. The research and technology carried out by the military have been influential not just for the army but for the general population as well. Along with serving as a source of patriotism for the people, the military can be credited for many of the innovative technologies and research shaping the future of medicine.