Click to download the catalog.

Click to download the catalog.

American military doctors who joined the cause for independence faced formidable odds. Of the 1,400 medical practitioners who served in the Continental Army, only about ten percent had formal medical degrees. The majority of the rest had learned their practice through an apprenticeship with an established physician. Most were young men at the beginning of their careers. Few had prior experience of war. Their civilian practices had not prepared them for the grim realities of warfare in eighteenth-century America, where far more soldiers under their care would die from disease and infection than would be killed on the battlefield.

Undaunted by these challenges, the healers played as critical a role in the war’s outcome as that of the warriors on the front lines. The field of military medicine was in its infancy at the time of the American Revolution. A generation earlier, Sir John Pringle had transformed medical care in the British army by emphasizing the need for order, cleanliness, sanitation and ventilation in military hospitals. Published a century before the discovery of microbes and antibiotics, Pringle’s Observations on Diseases of the Army was a pioneering work in the prevention of contagion and cross-contamination in treating the sick and wounded. Working under constrained and often brutal conditions—and with a perpetual shortage of medicines, supplies and personnel—American military doctors drew from Pringle and other writers to forge a system of medical care for the army based in the prevailing science of the time.

Each regiment of the army was staffed with a surgeon and surgeon’s mates who provided battlefield triage and critical care. The Hospital Department, created by Congress in July 1775, oversaw a more extensive staff of directors, physicians, purveyors and apothecaries who were responsible for managing and supplying the network of hospitals established across the states. With no clear chain of command between the department and the regiments, the delivery of adequate care to the troops was beset with administrative and logistical problems. Despite these obstacles, the medical practitioners kept their focus on their patients, working tirelessly to improve their condition and ease their suffering. In recognition of their service, Congress granted the army’s doctors the same rank and benefits as officers of the line.

After the war, most veteran military doctors returned to civilian practice. Several became leaders in their field, building upon the knowledge gained from their wartime experiences to promote reforms and advancements that would shape American medical practice for the next generation.

Drawn principally from the Institute’s collections of rare books, manuscripts, portraits and artifacts, Saving Soldiers examines medical practice in the Continental Army and the experiences of surgeons and their patients under the dire conditions of war. Featured are several medical treatises published in America during the Revolution, some bearing the ownership inscription of a Continental Army surgeon. The faces of the medical practitioners are represented by several contemporary portraits, including an exquisite portrait miniature of naval surgeon Nathan Dorsey by Charles Willson Peale, on loan from his descendants. A keystone of the exhibition is a copy of the rare pamphlet by Benjamin Rush, Directions for Preserving the Health of Soldiers, published by Congress in 1778 for distribution to the officers of the army. A Continental Army hospital register and a similar journal for a ship’s sick bay list patients, treatments and outcomes. Also on view are medical instruments and other artifacts associated with medical men whose heroic work contributed to the achievement of American independence.


Special thanks to the top supporters of this exhibition:


German Pierce Culver, Jr.
The Delaware State Society of the Cincinnati
Roy Alton Duke, Jr.
The New York State Society of the Cincinnati