By Tina Alvey
The American Civil War took a gruesome toll on the soldiers who fought on both sides. More than half a million died, and nearly that many were wounded but survived.
Battlefield injuries and life-saving but extreme surgeries left hundreds of thousands with permanent disabilities, their missing limbs a silent reminder of the conflict that split a nation.
From now through March 23, the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine is hosting a traveling exhibition created by the National Library of Medicine focusing on those disabled veterans.
Arrayed across the front aisle of the WVSOM Library are tall standing cards displaying images and text under the headings “The Horrors of War,” “Maimed Men,” “Honorable Scars,” “The Empty Sleeve” and “Sacrifices Forgotten.”
Expanding upon the information contained on the cards, the National Institute of Health’s website (www.nlm.nih.gov) offers the words of Confederate surgeon Julian John Chisholm: “The limbs of soldiers are in as much danger from the ardor of young surgeons as from the missiles of the enemy.”
Literature accompanying the exhibit explains, “Although the exact number is not known, approximately 60,000 surgeries, about three-quarters of all of the operations performed during the war, were amputations. Although seemingly drastic, the operation was intended to prevent deadly complications such as gangrene.
“Sometimes undertaken without anesthesia, and in some cases leaving the patient with painful sensations in the severed nerves, the removal of a limb was widely feared by soldiers.”
Critics like Chisholm claimed that inexperienced doctors were over-eager to amputate a limb in order to improve their surgical skills, rather than attempt less drastic measures.
WVSOM has extended an invitation to schools to schedule student group visits to see the exhibition and to take advantage of the National Library’s lesson plans for K-12 educators or the online activities that can be accessed through the National Institute of Health’s website.
“Life and Limb — The Toll of the American Civil War” is open to the public at the WVSOM Library 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday; noon to 6 p.m. Saturday and 2 to 10 p.m. Sunday.
For more information or to schedule a group visit to see the “Life and Limb” exhibition, call the library at 304-647-6261.
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