Pennsylvania is marking the Civil War Sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) with special events at Gettysburg and other locations throughout the state and in Philadelphia. America’s bloodiest conflict, of course, led to more deaths from disease than on the battlefield for both Union and Confederate fighters. These deaths spoke volumes about what public health and medical personnel, as well as ordinary citizens, did not know about the prevention of disease and the treatment of battlefield wounds. Indeed, the brutality of that war stimulated two advances in public health that remain with us: the United States Sanitary Commission and the National Library of Medicine.
The U. S. Sanitary Commission was a civilian relief organization created by federal legislation to support sick and wounded Union soldiers. Founded by women, who raised money through “Sanitary Fairs” and worked as volunteers and nurses, it was the forerunner of the American Red Cross. The history of the Sanitary Commission is deservedly well chronicled, as are the stories of the luminaries who volunteered with this effort, among them the author Louisa May Alcott.
The second, less well-known but longer-lived public heath legacy of the Civil War was the expansion of the library of the Office of the Surgeon General of the Army -- the forerunner of today’s National Library of Medicine. Under the leadership of Col. John Shaw Billings, an Army surgeon who assumed the post in 1865, the library grew from a small collection of books to an enterprise that today provides materials to researchers and clinicians throughout the world. Built to ensure that the medical knowledge needed to stem deaths in the military would always be accessible, the library became an institution of international prominence and a vital global resource.
Research gathered from peer-reviewed publications produced by experts from around the globe is the starting point for public health investigations today. It is where questions are posed and answered and where answers are revisited and questioned again so that new knowledge is created and new clinical applications and preventive measures can be applied. Today, anyone with a computer and a web connection can find earlier studies and investigations thanks to Billings’ development of the Surgeon General’s Library.