World War II brought death and destruction upon the world. On the other hand, it also opened doors for pioneering developments that commonly occur during such situations of high adversity. Some of the most important advancements took place in the field of medicine when the world was embroiled in World War II. As Dr. Ralph Major states, “An army is a vast laboratory of medical research where disease and injuries are seen on a far larger scale than in peacetime. Many improvements in the treatment of infections have come from experiences on the battlefield” (Major 52). Devastation in the war left countless soldiers and civilians with life threatening injuries and diseases. This devastation and destruction, led to the innovation of the three most important medicines in history namely Penicillin, Blood plasma and Sulfanilamide. These three innovations in the field of medicine helped save thousands of soldiers in World War II and are considered to be the most important medical advancements in the war.
“Penicillin fought for the soldier as bravely as the soldier fought for his country” (www.lib.niu.edu). Out of the three innovations in medicine during World War II, penicillin undoubtedly was the most important. Penicillin was invented by Dr. Alexander Fleming in 1928 and was crucial in saving lives of soldiers on D-Day where stockpiles of penicillin were gathered in depots of England and were on hand in time for the Allied invasion of Germany (Rowland 32) . Operation Overload was the pivotal point of World War II because that was when the Allies took the offensive and attacked the German stronghold of Normandy Beach. It was estimated that 3000 lives were saved on that day with the use of Penicillin and by the time the war ended that number turned out to be over two million (www.historylearningsite.co.uk).
These figures clearly show how useful penicillin was during the period of the war. Penicillin however was first seen in action in the Battle of Britain where air raids by the Luftwaffe left many civilians and soldiers wounded and the doctors needed more effective ways to treat burns (www.lib.niu.edu). Penicillin was needed in large numbers as it was the only way Britain could save their soldiers and civilians. Penicillin was also the first broad spectrum antibiotic ever created. It was first broad spectrum antibiotic because it cured various diseases such as: “hemolytic, streptococcus, gonorrhea, syphilis and it was a wonderful antibiotic for wounds and burns” (www.historystudycenter.com).
All these diseases could be cured with the use of penicillin and displays how penicillin outnumbered any other medical advancement during World War II in the number of diseases it cured. Soldiers also felt more confident having penicillin in their pockets as they knew that no disease could affect them as long as they had penicillin. This passionate bond could be observed through posters from World War II saying “Thanks to Penicillin…He Will Come Home!!” which was used as propaganda in an attempt to diminish the fear of going to war on the home front (www.mcatmaster.com). Penicillin had motivated civilians to get involved in the war effort and was rightly called the war’s ‘wonder drug’ (www.abc.net/au). Penicillin had motivated the medical industry to expand and an accidental discovery more than sixty years ago in the laboratory of Alexander Fleming helped save countless lives during World War II.
Blood Plasma was also an important medical advancement during World War II as when war was raged in Europe, blood was needed for the wounded troops and plasma was used to transfer blood to the wounded soldiers. It was invented by Dr. Charles Drew in 1938; he discovered it by separating the plasma from the whole blood and then refrigerating them separately (home.att.net/steinert.htm). They could then be combined up to a week later for a blood transfusion (www.history.amedd/army). Blood plasma could replace whole blood and this discovery played a major role in World War II where many countries experienced extreme casualties with a lot of bleeding, resulting in the huge losses of blood. Plasma was used to transfer blood as it served to keep satisfactory blood pressure and supply critical proteins and globulins (antibodies) to the wounded soldiers (www.usaaf.net/wwii). There were many uses of Plasma on the battlefield and on the whole, it helped keep a proper balance in the body which makes it one of the best innovations in medical history.
The pressing demand for blood on the battlefields led to Britain organizing the International Transfusion Association in 1940 which collected blood (people donated blood) and turned it into blood plasma. This program collected, processed and transported 14,500 units of plasma to the allied armies and it was all done within five months (home.att.net/wwii.htm). Dr. Drew was an important member of the group and his scientific research helped revolutionize blood plasma transfusion so that blood plasma could readily be given to wounded soldiers on the battlefield, which dramatically improved opportunities to save lives. Blood plasma could also be dried which made it very easy to transport, pack, store and the soldiers could also carry it around in their pockets (www.history.amedd/army).
As mentioned in the ‘United States office of war’ newsreel “Soldiers in Normandy got the best medical care science could offer and plasma cheated death in cases of many soldiers” (www.concise.britannica.com). Soldiers received the most modern medical treatments on D-day in Normandy beach and blood transfusion of soldiers was sometimes done just behind the fighting army lines. Planes carried almost a ton of Plasma on that day to the beach which helped save approximately 900 soldiers (www.concise.britannica.com). All these miracles had been performed by blood plasma during WWII which offered the victims of war a glimmer of hope and saved massive amounts of people at Normandy Beach, truly making it a panacea that improved several aspects of life.
“The Nazis discovered it. The allies won the war with it…This incredible discovery was Sulpha” (www.asm.org). Sulpha drugs or Sulfanilamide greatly affected the mortality rates during World War II, especially for the Allies and helped save thousands of soldiers and many important people. One of them was Winston Churchill who was the British premier in 1943. He had caught a fatal disease called contracted pneumonia and was on the verge of death. His physician had to give him M + B 693 sulfanamide to cure him and “there is little doubt that the novel Sulfa drug defeated the pneumonia and probably saved his life” (www.asm.org). His recovery was very important to the Allies as that was the time they were making plans for D-Day in which Britain had a major role. Approximately 140,000 allied soldiers carried a package of Sulfa powder (Sulfanilamide) on D-Day in their medical pouches and they were also taught how to immediately sprinkle sulfa powder on any open wound to prevent infection (elibrary.bigchalk.com). This evidence illustrates how important sulfanilamide was to every soldier in the war and all the countries were quick to realize its importance.
At an outbreak of Meningitis in the French Foreign Legion in Nigeria, while sulfanilamide was available, there was an eleven percent mortality rate. But after the supply was exhausted, mortality climbed up to seventy five percent (Margotta 58). The mortality rates in World War II would have been much higher if it were not for sulfanilamide and this incident is a clear depiction of what would have happened. In the United States in the early thirty’s, about hundred thousand people died annually of pneumonia, blood poisoning and cerebrospinal meningitis. Gonorrhea had afflicted some twelve million Americans which became a serious issue for the United States government (www.pubs.acs/org).
These numbers however, decreased dramatically by the early 1940’s and much of the credit goes to Gerhard Domagk and his team of chemists who developed the very first sulfa drugs that could treat the diseases (mentioned earlier) and also opened up the door to modern medicines (www.pubs.acs/org). Sulfa drugs preceded penicillin by almost ten years as they first developed in 1932, so “they carried the main therapeutic burden in both military and civilian medicine during the war” (elibrary.bigchalk.com). They also proved extraordinarily fruitful as starting points for new drugs or classes of drugs, both for bacterial infections and for a number of important non-infectious diseases. The initial breakthrough in the 1930’s of sulfa drugs research is the stem today in the current search for the effective treatments for AIDS making it a truly revolutionary antibiotic.
So, therefore Penicillin, Blood Plasma and Sulfanilamide were considered the most important medical innovations during World War II because of the tremendous impact they had in the war and the countless number of lives they saved. All of the medical advancements in World War Two went on to benefit society after the war had ended. Whether such developments would have occurred at the same pace in peace time will never be known. But the one very interesting thing here is that, medical advancements take place at such a rapid pace mainly because of a major war and the problem of the great number of casualties due to a major war is solved by medicine. Therefore, war and medicine are fatal partners and are very closely related but are not the same thing, as war causes the problems and medicine solves them.
Citations/ ReferencesBooksMargotta, Roberto. History of Medicine. Britain: Hamlyn, 1996.
Major, Ralph Hermon. Fatal Partners: War and disease. 3rd. London: Doran
Rowland, John. The Penicillin Man: The story of Alexander Fleming. EightImpression. London: Lutherworth Press, 1969.
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DatabasesRoff, Sue. “The Technology of healing: A century of Medicne.” History StudyCenter. 2003. Helicon. 26 May 2007″Sulfa Drug.” eLibrary. 12 Jan 2005. Encyclopedia Britannica. 26 May 2007.
Primary SourcesWorld War II Poster. “Thanks to Penicillin… He Will Come
Home!!”U.S. Office of War Information newsreel. “Penicillin and plasma save lives.”Normandy, June-July 1944. National Archives, Washington, D.C.
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