NEWBERRY — American history re-enactor Eric Williams showed just how far modern medicine has come Sunday afternoon.
The re-enactor and history guru spoke to the Newberry County Historical and Museum Society in one of Newberry’s own historical homes at the corner of Main and Summer Streets.
Williams said there were three major areas to 18th century medicine which include: bleeding, dentistry and amputation of limbs.
“If you knew medicine, you practiced it,” said Williams who explained that there were different levels of course.
For bleeding, Williams explained that “if you’ve ever had a common fever or any type of malady in your body, one of the first things a surgeon did was to bleed someone. Bleeding opens a vein on a person’s body and draws blood from the veins.”
Williams showed a tool that the doctor would use to but a vein open and he also showed a bleeding pan which held about four ounces of blood.
Williams spoke as though he were in the 18th century saying, “We’re bleeding people as the ancient Egyptians did. If there’s a fever, one of the first things to do is to bleed someone.”
Williams was very descriptive in how the process worked and also explained that the surgeon had to size up each person based on their body size.
As for after the bleeding, Williams explained that the surgeon would use silk thread and a needle to stitch one up and cotton, though not purified, helped with absorption of the blood.
A bandage sealed everything up.
Moving on to dentistry work, Williams explained what the process would be like for a soldier who had a broken tooth.
One of the tools he emphasized was called a goats foot elevator which was used to hold and keep the mouth open. The dentist or surgeon would extract the tooth and raw cotton was used to absorb much of the blood.
Williams does say that to help sedate a patient, a teaspoon or two of a substance containing opium would help calm the patient.
However, “the problem with any procedure in 18th century surgery was infection. There was no sterilizing between soldier and soldier, so infections happened.”
There was the option to not have surgery and risk death or have surgery and still risk death depending on the severity of the problem.
When the time came for a surgeon to have to perform an amputation, the surgeon had to first decide who to take first.
Williams said there were tools to help with the process which were quite primitive compared to today, such as a saw, a knife and a leather strap to hold a bone or muscle from moving or sliding.
In cases of a soldier’s arm or leg about to fall off, “it had to be done to save a soldier’s life,” said Williams.
“If infection didn’t set in, he may just survive the whole thing,” he said.
Williams credits the Revolutionary War with putting people into the medical field to help soldiers and forge a trail for modern medicine.
“Had it not been for the Revolutionary War that forced people into helping soldiers, there would be a lack of experience to develop further developments,” said Williams, “The primitive methods blazed a trail.”