War’s Therapeutic History


Florence Nightingale tending the sick and wounded during the Crimean War. Lithograph E. Walker; Day & Son. Located in the Library of Congress. Copyright expired.

By A. G. Moore

It is ironic that throughout history, war has been an effective laboratory for creating advances in medicine. Human beings are the raw material of war. Injured humans, sick humans, cannot carry out the mission of their masters. They cannot win victories if they perish from wounds, or struggle with illness. It is in the interest of nations and the leaders of nations to protect soldiers. And thus, history shows, war has been the environment in which medical innovation and discovery has often occurred.

Of course, there have been idealists who labored, in war and peace, to improve medical care. No slight is here intended to these heroes. I am in awe of often unacknowledged and anonymous benefactors who give their lives to save the lives of others. But even in these instances, it has often been the case  that the work of the idealist is sponsored and supported by a less altruistic actor.

For example, Florence Nightingale traveled to the Crimea in the midst of a terrible war because she wanted to save lives. No one has ever been able to impugn the motives of this great nurse and medical innovator. Her actions saved not only British soldiers but countless soldiers of all nationalities who fought in successive wars.

As is typical of medical innovation prompted by warfare, Florence Nightingale’s insight and reforms also extended to civilian populations. She began a revolution in sanitation and nursing that has benefited every generation, civilian and military, across the world.

Not only did Florence Nightingale improve nursing and hospital practices, she also inspired a transformation in battlefield ethics. Because of her example and advice, the concept of neutrality for professional medical personnel evolved as a modern concept in warfare. The Geneva Conventions, which cemented this concept in international law, were a legacy of Florence Nightingale’s influence.

However, without the Crimean War, and without the English Crown’s need for healthy soldiers to carry on in battle, Florence Nightingale might never have gone to the Crimea. The English Crown was in crisis because of the appalling number of deaths suffered by its soldiers in the Crimea. This crisis threatened to deny the English a victory in the Crimean War.

Florence Nightingale became an angel to suffering soldiers in the Crimea and a savior to the English war effort. She became a popular figure to families in Britain whose loved ones were saved and she became a national hero because of her contribution to the war effort. Queen Victoria personally awarded Florence a unique medal, The Nightingale Jewel, in commemoration of her extraordinary service.

Medical innovation in wartime did not not begin or end with Florence Nightingale. In the ancient world, Greek, Egyptian and Indian doctors traveled to battlefields to treat the wounded. Improved surgical techniques were the result.

In more modern times, Jonas Salk worked on an influenza vaccine at the behest of the US government during WWII. It was the successful development of a flu vaccine that helped Salk to understand the direction to take in his research on a polio vaccine.

The carnage of war throughout history has been a prompt for development of therapeutic medicine. This is an opportunistic result: the attention and energies of great powers focus on medical care at these critical junctures because of battlefield imperatives. A true advance would be for state leaders to see the urgency of focusing on medical care in peacetime, when the needs of civilian populations are front and center. This would represent not only a revolution in medical science but also a essential evolution in the human condition.

Churchill, A Necessary Leader

By A. G. Moore

Winston Churchill, 1899, as he made a triumphant appearance after escaping from a Boer prison of war camp.

If there are people marked by history to play large roles in the course of human events, Winston Churchill was surely one of these. It might be said that fate was a constant companion on his remarkable path, but in each instance, when fate offered opportunity it was Churchill who gave the final measure. He was audacious, brilliant and ambitious. His character and experience prepared him ideally for the most important task of his life: to hold the British nation fast when all others had fallen before advancing German forces in WWII.

Winston Churchill’s political career began inauspiciously in 1899 when he ran unsuccessfully for a seat in Parliament. This was not to be his only electoral defeat. Over a career that spanned more than 50 years there were failures and successes. There were missteps and achievements. Some of the qualities that led to the missteps were among those which allowed him to lead steadfastly and dramatically during the grim days of WWII.

Churchill was tempered by war. He was attracted to military action and at times placed himself in the front line of battle when more secure environments were open to him. By the time Churchill had won his first seat in Parliament he’d seen action in the Sudan, the Northern Frontier (in what is today Pakistan) and South Africa. In the last of these campaigns he earned instant international notoriety by negotiating an escape from a Boer prison of war camp after a brief period of captivity (4 weeks). In each of his military engagements, death was a distinct possibility; it was a consequence suffered by many of his companions–but not Churchill.

Throughout his career Churchill’s political decisions were shaped by a mindset that held firm to the idea of British empire and an inclination to favor war over negotiation. Long before WWI, in anticipation of German ambitions, he advocated for the building of a strong navy. He did so, some believe, at the expense of developing a powerful ground capability. His strategy, it is widely suggested, led to a disastrous defeat in the Dardanelles during the first world war.

Just as Churchill did not personally avoid the battlefield, he forcefully argued against those who would appease aggressors. He saw danger in Bolshevism and wanted to take on Stalin long before the Cold War. He was vociferous in criticizing Chamberlain for making concessions to Hitler in 1938 and he argued forcefully for a build-up of Britain’s nuclear capability after WWII.

Churchill’s view of Britain’s colonies more reflected a Victorian colonialism than a 20th century appreciation of self-determination. He fiercely resisted Indian independence and dispatched the Black and Tans to put down Irish republicanism in 1919.

At any point in his long career, if Churchill had faltered and his career had been cut short, there might have been little mention of him in the history books. But fate served the stalwart leader well. After the 1940 fall of France to German forces in WWII, and before the 1941 entry of the US into the war, Churchill marshaled all the instincts that had served him well and not so well in the past. He was poised in that moment to become a man of history, a man of destiny–perhaps flawed in another context but exquisitely prepared to steer the ship of state in a moment when Britain stood alone before the German aggressor.


If you found this discussion interesting, you might also be interested in one of  Rhythm Prism’s books that deal with colonialism: The Modern British Empire: A Brief History and Exploration and Conquest: Stories of Indigenous Peoples.

The Modern British Empire is appropriate for students who are in middle school or high school.  It contains a study guide that reinforces concepts covered.

Exploration and Conquest is appropriate for all mature readers.  The book  (172 pages) uses pictures to help tell the story of European exploration.  The discussion covers the impact of colonialism on indigenous peoples from four continents and from islands that spread across the wide seas.


cover brit for site