The modern era has graced us with some of the most miraculous medical advancements for which we could hope. So much so that the most dangerous enemy in any engagement is, well, the actual enemy on the battlefield. It wasn’t always like this. In the 1870s, for example, one of the most dangerous enemies was disease. In fact, twice as many soldiers were killed by disease as by enemy combatants. Wow!
Here are a few of the most dangerous diseases battlefield surgeons had to contend with:
Victory Disease. This might not be familiar to you because it’s not an actual disease. But it kills just like one. When a powerful force begins to believe itself invulnerable, victory disease takes root. Such is the case for General George Armstrong Custer, who led his men to slaughter because of his belief that they could not be defeated.
Malaria. This is still a major killer around the world even though we have the vaccine in hand. Those who come down with the infectious disease will likely succumb to a combination of fever, fatigue, vomiting, and splitting headaches. End-stage symptoms include a yellow complexion, seizure, coma, and potentially death. Mosquitoes transport the disease and it can recur after several months if left untreated.
Yellow Fever. Another virus transmitted through those dastardly mosquitoes. After nearly a week, those infected will start to develop fever, aches and pains, and chills. More serious end-stage symptoms include organ failure, shock, hemorrhage, and death.
Gangrene. This occurs due to other conditions including diabetes, smoking, trauma, alcoholism, and frostbite. On the battlefield, trauma is the number one predictor. Gangrene is the death of tissue, which is why symptoms include changing skin color. One might experience numbness, intense pain, broken skin, chills, etc. May present with sepsis.
Dysentery. This is common on the battlefield due to the lack of quality water. Dysentery is an intestinal infection that leads to diarrhea and dehydration. Many who suffer from dysentery will die without medical treatment.
Tuberculosis. This disease most often attacks the lungs and is highly infectious because it is spread through particles in the air. Caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis, it results in weight loss, coughing, loss of appetite, fever, night sweats, and intense fatigue.
Smallpox. Caused by viruses, this disease was globally eradicated by 1980. About a third of those who contracted the disease would eventually die. It is noteworthy because of the many fluid-filled bumps or dimples that covered the body. Those who survived would likely incur heavy scarring. Other symptoms include fever and vomiting. Some survivors also went blind.