With primitive equipment, doctors performed miracles

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WATERBURY, Conn. (AP) — Physicians didn’t know the origins of disease. Infection was not yet a word. Anesthesia was nearly 100 years into the future.

And yet the surgeons who marched with the colonial troops managed to save lives, extract bullets, amputate limbs and care for the diseased soldiers in camp.

Dr. Raymond Sullivan, a retired Middlebury surgeon, has had 30 years of experience on the advances made by modern medicine. And yet he marvels at the skill and sheer persistence that colonial-era surgeons used to keep their troops healthy.

“Early medicine accomplished so much in the face of extremely difficult hardships and unavailability of practical sources of treatment,” said Sullivan, who will speak on “Rough Medicine: The Medicine and Surgery of the American Revolution” at the Woodbury firehouse on Monday. “Our men in the Revolution had to be extremely resilient.”

And so did colonial women. Sullivan, who lectures on the medicine and surgery of the American Revolution, notes the experience of Abigail “Nabby” Adams, the first-born daughter of John and Abigail Adams, who underwent a radical mastectomy at 45, in her parents’ kitchen.

“When you stop and think that Nabby Adams underwent a radical mastectomy in her parents’ home and actually survived the operation and survived is incredible,” said Sullivan, whose talk is sponsored by the Woman’s Club of Woodbury. “The fact that you can amputate an individual’s leg, on the battlefield, and have anyone survive such an ordeal was absolutely incredible.”

Also astonishing, he said, is that modern amputation has changed little since the 18th century. The instruments used – skin knife, muscle knife, saws – are largely the same, he said. “What is different is sterility and the prevention of infection,” he said. By some estimates, only 35 percent of those who had limbs amputated in the American Revolution survived.

Originally from Waterbury, Sullivan practiced as a general surgeon with Surgical Associates in Waterbury before his 1995 retirement. Sullivan had always been interested in New England history.

Twelve years ago, his daughter, living in Marblehead, Mass., proposed he join Gen. John Glover’s Marblehead Regiment of the Revolution. All three of his grandchildren participate in the regiment’s activities, which include it annual encampment at Fort Sewell in Marblehead in July.

Because of his medical experience, Sullivan was recruited to be the regimental surgeon. He began collecting medical implements and now estimates he has a few hundred pieces of medical equipment from colonial days.

Each member of the 60-person regiment takes on a persona. Sullivan takes on that of John Warren, one of the three men responsible for the creation of Harvard Medical School and a friend of the Adamses.

The author of two historical books – “Breakneck,” on the history of Middlebury, and “Contentment: A Novel of New England’s birth” – Sullivan discusses both the medical and military obstacles regimental surgeons faced. During the Revolution, for example, when the British blocked supplies from the West Indies, colonists relied on Native American traditions to cure illness and disease, which was the main threat to colonial soldiers. Indeed, he says, the rate of infection during the Revolutionary War was no different from that in the Civil War. Twice as many soldiers died of disease than of injuries suffered in battle in both wars.

During the blockade, surgeons lost access to medications that were commonplace in Europe – quinine and the source of mercury, calomel, the latter used to treat syphilis – was impossible. To be a general surgeon at the time, he said, would have been “very frustrating.”

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