Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Medical Department #16 - Multi-Media Civil War Medicine

Below I post a description of a great product for the home or the classroom: Dr. Bruce Evans's multi-media introduction to Civil War medicine. The review and interview originally appeared in my "Medical Department" column in The Civil War News in late 2006, but the product is still available and definitely worth a look!

by James M. Schmidt
The Civil War News – “Medical Department” – August 2006

I am pleased to provide a review of a new multimedia resource devoted to Civil War medicine and surgery: Dr. Bruce A. Evans’s “The Civil War Surgeon” ($50.00,, a CD-ROM billed by Bruce as “a fascinating experience of the science and practice of medicine during the American Civil War.”

The program includes excellent information on medical education in the 19th century, organization of the medical departments and staff, and detailed descriptions of items in surgical and medical kits, with both period and modern commentaries. Most important, the presentation is enlivened with entertaining and elegant illustrations and animations. All of the programming was performed by Dr. Evans himself.

Bruce is a neurologist on staff at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. He received a bachelors degree in biology from Stanford University and received his M.D. from the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine. He has been on the staff of the renowned Mayo Clinic for more than twenty years. His primary professional interest is the care of stroke patients. Bruce is also interested in medical education, and his involvement in the 1990s in the production of a series of interactive CD-ROMs for primary care physicians planted the seed of his Civil War project.

“I have studied the Civil War since the fifth grade, which corresponded to the Centennial observance,” Bruce told me. About 15 years ago he saw a notice for the annual meeting of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine. He attended the conference and has been interested in the field ever since.

“My initial interest was in the treatment of non-surgical disease, which I felt had been relatively ignored,” he continued. “This gradually developed into study of the basis for the various treatments used by doctors of the period, the medications used, what the theories suggested those medications did, and the results.” Bruce joins the camp of other recent scholars in Civil War medicine: that is, to look at the treatment in the context of the times, and, as he told me, “war against the anachronistic and sensationalistic presentations of Civil War medicine and the representation of the physicians of time as ignorant medical savages.”

Bruce has done his part by producing the CD-ROM. The great advantages are its portability and comprehensive treatment of the subject: it is a single reference giving full background on the use of all the common medications and instruments of the period, backed up with war-era references, modern commentary, and fully-detailed illustrations that can be taken anywhere. Its utility is not limited to devotees of Civil War medicine; it would make an excellent interactive resource for classrooms, hospitals, historical sites, museums, military installations, etc.

The minimum system requirements are modest: a PC running Windows 98, ME, or XP; 366 MHz processor or greater (no specific chip set requirements were indicated); 10x or faster CD-ROM drive; 800 x 600 or greater screen resolution. The program does not require installation; however, QuickTime 6.0 or greater is required and an installer is provided on the CD-ROM.

The main screen of the program shows the inside of the tent of a Civil War surgeon. By selecting objects in the tent, the user can explore a number of areas, including a surgical set, a medicine chest, and pocket tool and field medical kits. Especially interesting are examples of the paperwork that were the bane of already-overworked Civil War surgeons, including daily and monthly reports. The illustrations and animations are clear and smooth. There are some recorded narrations.

Since I’m a pharmaceutical research scientist by day, I was particularly interested in exploring the regimental medicine chest - or medical pannier - an 88-pound wooden box containing tin bottles of over fifty medications as well as a plethora of medical accessories. Almost all of the contents are available for inspection with further details on how and why they were used. A clever tool allows the user to select medicines from a reproduction of the label that was placed in the top of the chest to assist in locating bottles of specific medications! Once a medicine is selected, the initial screen gives a rendering of the medicine bottle and a simple discussion of the use of that medication, with more detailed information only a click away.

The information presented in the program is either from 19th-century primary sources, from the viewpoint of a physician of the time, or modern viewpoints on the medicine or procedure. I found the different points-of-view somewhat confusing, but in fairness, Bruce tries to avoid this by providing a “Modern Comment” button where appropriate. Hyperlinks in the text can be selected for more information. I especially liked Bruce’s “glossary” feature which provides definitions and additional information in pop-up windows. This avoids having to leave the screen you are on and lose your place in the process.

The interactive nature of the program also avoids the “linear” nature of most books and other learning materials: the user is free to explore in any direction they are interested and pursue it to considerable depth if desired. The flexibility of the program does hit a roadblock if you inadvertently “quit” the program: you have to start over from scratch. It would have been helpful to have an “are you sure you want to exit?” feature.

One of the truly entertaining features of the program is the period music. When I asked about the “mystery musician,” Bruce told me: “The pianist is my middle daughter, Margaret. We found public domain vintage sheet music on the internet and produced the music on a digital piano. That allowed us to combine the two-handed accompaniment and a melody line.”

I heartily endorse Bruce Evans’s “The Civil War Surgeon” CD-ROM. For more information or to order, visit his website at: contact Bruce directly at:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree that it's good for a basic overview if one has an idea of nineteenth century medicine 101.

I wish that it could be stored on a hard drive, so you don't have to grope for the disc every time you need to consult it.