Muskets, dysentry, bullet extractors and bone saws: The medical breakthroughs of the British Civil Wars

By Ben Miller | 12 April 2016

During the 17th century, surgeons could remove a bladder stone in 50 seconds, military hospitals had stern hygiene standards and a complex system of war pensions evolved for the maimed, widowed and orphaned

A photo of a surgical instrument from the British Civil War at the National Civil War Centre
A bone saw© National Civil War Centre
Getting wounded in the British Civil Wars was a particularly painful business. Soldiers were treated with bullet extractors, bone saws and skull elevators, anaesthetic hadn’t been developed, and some of the cures didn’t even work on a practical level – mercury, offered in cases of venereal disease, actually worsened the predicament of sufferers.

But the mid-17th century was also a groundbreaking time when medics could experiment, according to Glyn Hughes of the National Civil War Centre, where some of the gory instruments are on display. “We think of this period as backward in its treatment of wounds and welfare,” he says.

“In fact, the opposite is often true. The British Civil Wars were the deadliest in this nation's history, so there was no shortage of wounded personnel to practice on. Musket cannons, typhus and dysentery took their toll, but it's surprising how many people lived through horrific injuries.”

A photo of a surgical instrument from the British Civil War at the National Civil War Centre
A period musket ball extractor© National Civil War Centre
In response to a conflict which killed six percent of England’s population, parliament established the first permanent military hospitals, London’s Savoy and Ely House, in 1642. A welfare system was instigated for troops and their families, with nurses – many of whom had been widowed by the war – changing linen and towels weekly, deep-cleaning hospitals and prescribing trips to the restorative waters of Bath.

Dr Andrew Hopper, from the Centre for English Local History at the University of Leicester, sees the pension petitions to parliament from ex-servicemen, widows and orphans as one of the most powerful symbols of the change the wars created. “Maimed ex-soldiers, widows and orphans were everywhere,” he says.

“The bitter memory of this conflict hung over the nation for decades. The pension system instituted by Parliament would not be bettered for 200 years and broke new ground in its scope.

A photo of a surgical instrument from the British Civil War at the National Civil War Centre
A medical bill from the wars© National Civil War Centre
“It wasn't a universal system - pension rights were not extended to those who fought for the King. But the state assuming greater responsibility for the citizenry marks a major milestone.”

Tom Fairfax, a descendant of Sir Thomas Fairfax, who was wounded 18 times as the Commander in Chief of Parliamentary forces, also contacted the museum to lend them the leader’s gauntlet, boots and wheelchair. Dr Hopper is now applying for funding with the centre to digitise thousands of the period documents, which are scattered across England and Wales.


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A photo of a surgical instrument from the British Civil War at the National Civil War Centre
Known as "Black Tom", Sir Thomas Fairfax led from the front and was wounded 18 times, including being shot in the shoulder at Helmsley Castle in Yorkshire© National Civil War Centre
A photo of a surgical instrument from the British Civil War at the National Civil War Centre
Fairfax's boots© National Civil War Centre
A photo of a surgical instrument from the British Civil War at the National Civil War Centre
© National Civil War Centre
Three museums to discover the Civil War in

Hull and East Riding Museum
The English Civil war began at Hull, when the governor of the town refused to allow King Charles I to enter it and seize its arsenal. The king’s supporters placed the town under siege and visitors can relive the events of the siege by taking the roles of Royalist or Parliamentarian in an interactive game.

Bolling Hall Museum, Bradford
A central exhibit of the Civil War room is Cromwell's death mask. The bedrooms are decorated by period, providing a fascinating insight into the lives of wealthy families of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

London Metropolitan Archives
The War In London exhibition reveals the effects of five conflicts on Londoners and their city, from the English Civil War to the Cold War. Until April 27 2016.
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In those days shoes, etc. were similar for both sides. Only in later times were created left and right shoes.
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