Civil War Medicine

An exhibit at the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library throws light on a pivotal period for American hospitals and New Haven’s history. 

When New Haven’s first hospital opened in 1833, it was the product of years of political wrangling and a fund-raising campaign that swept up Yale’s small medical faculty, who needed a place both to teach clinical medicine and to build their reputations and private practices. But the State Hospital, as it was known at first, also had trouble finding enough patients to fill its 75 beds. Wealthy and middle-class New Haven residents could afford to be seen at home by their private physicians, and hospital care in the early 1800s offered few benefits over home care. Demand from patients was so low that, for the first few years, the fledgling hospital on York Street rented out rooms.

That picture changed dramatically with the onset of the Civil War, according to a recent exhibit on New Haven’s Hospitals at the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library. In 1862, the directors of the State Hospital leased the building to the U.S. government to be used as a military hospital. Through 1865, 25,340 soldiers were treated at the hospital, with only 185 deaths. During those war years, the hospital was known as the Knight U.S. Army General Hospital, after Jonathan Knight, a founding professor at the Medical Institution of Yale College and a leading surgeon in the state.

As patients poured into hospitals up and down the East Coast during the Civil War, doctors began to see that most deaths came not from bullets on the battlefield but as the result of infectious diseases including dysentery, typhoid and malaria. When the Knight Hospital was directed by the military to increase its number of beds to 1,000, it did so by building pavilions. This would allow doctors to segregate patients into wards to prevent the spread of disease.

While medical practices at the time were rudimentary, conditions at the hospital, and the personnel there, were vastly superior to those at the front. In general, wounded limbs were amputated with an instrument that resembled a hacksaw to halt the spread of infection. The operation was quick, generally taking no more than 15 minutes. An author in the Knight Hospital Record, explaining what sick and wounded soldiers have to suffer while en route from the battlefield, reported that “we are unloaded and assigned to a ‘bed’ on the nearest grassplot. Here we are surrounded by suffering in all its phases, and scenes most revolting. Bared wounds are on all sides, some of which are alive from exposure and lack of attention.” The report went on to describe the amputation table, “where the surgeons cut off limbs with as much composure as a butcher would saw a leg of mutton for your dinner table; where legs and arms, feet and hands, and toes and fingers, are heaped together in one conglomerated mess.”

The name of the hospital was changed to New Haven Hospital in 1884. It grew significantly in the late 19th century along with other hospitals as cities burgeoned with the influx of immigration and industrialization and as improved medical care, including aseptic surgery and general anesthesia, began to attract middle-class and wealthy patients. In 1872, two wings were added. In 1882, a separate dormitory was built for the affiliated Connecticut Training School for Nurses, founded in 1873. The 1880s saw the addition of the Farnam Amphitheater for Surgery and the Gifford wings. The original State Hospital building was demolished in 1929 to make way for the Clinic Building.

In 1945, New Haven Hospital merged with Grace Hospital, a homeopathic facility chartered in 1889, to become Grace-New Haven Community Hospital. The York Street building known as the Memorial Unit opened in 1953 and, 12 years later, after a new affiliation with Yale University, the hospital became Yale-New Haven Hospital.

The exhibit, which was on display from May to September, can be viewed at Nearly Well: Civil War Soldier Robert Butcher.

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  • 19th Century Medicine
  • History
  • New Haven