Reflections on Friendly Fire

The war of 1812, lasting from 1812 to 1814 was a result of long-standing disputes between the government of Britain and the government of the United States of America. The war gradually came to an end that permitted the survival of the small British North American colonies.

The principle land action occurred along the border between the northern states and Upper and Lower Canada. As Alan Taylor describes in his book The Civil War of 1812, the residents on both sides many of who were related or engaged in commerce across the border had no interest and in some cases opposed the war. These same civilians often lost their homes, possessions and sometimes their lives as a result of military actions. Fire between friends was not friendly.

Friendly Fire is a project developed by the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in collaboration with the Museum of Health Care engaging the power of the artist as a story teller and synthesizer. The artist, Howie Tsui investigated health and medicine during the war of 1812. The resulting exhibition illuminates the brutal conditions of the body in war and the medical techniques of the period.

Health care during the war was provided by military surgeons who faced three classical medical problems.

During the nineteenth century, disease was the leading cause of death and disability during war, something that would be highlighted in the much larger conflict, the American Civil War forty years later. There was little understanding of the cause and transmission of contagious disease and infection. Military surgeons understood the value of cleanliness in barracks and ship mess decks to prevent the spread of disease; however this was difficult to achieve with troops in the field. Most of the medications and therapies available to the surgeons were of little use in the control of contagious disease such as typhoid fever. This would not change until later in the nineteenth century as the cause and transmission of contagious disease began to be clarified.

Similarly the stress of warfare as a trigger of mental illness was not understood and would not become clear until the experience during the wars of the twentieth century. These stresses may account for the self mutilation documented in the exhibition.

Gunshot wounds particularly affecting arms and legs were often fatal because of either infection or gangrene. The mortality of open wounds particularly if associated with a fracture of a bone were associated with a high mortality due to infection even under the most favourable hospital  conditions and almost uniformly fatal in the field of battle. Compromise of the circulation to the extremity led to gangrene with a similar out come. Therefore military surgeons used amputation to save lives. Amputation without anaesthesia at this time required speed. Military surgeons became skillful at performing rapid amputations with instruments that today look crude but were very effective.

Reflections on health and health care during the war of 1812 leads to a more thoughtful and balanced commemoration of the war.

James A. Low

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