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Researching What I Don’t Know

A discussion on the Hearts Through History Romance Writers loop inspired this blog.

In my time travel romance, Erin’s Rebel, the hero, a Confederate officer, is in one of the trenches around Petersburg, Virginia, when Yankee shelling causes the trench to collapse, burying him.

He’s pulled out but suffers a few broken ribs and a broken leg. My dilemma was–what did they do for broken bones during the Civil War? Were they limited to splints or had Plaster of Paris come into use by then?

Off to the web I went to do research. I checked a few Civil War medicine sites, but could find nothing pertaining to broken bones. Most sites listed very specific info about amputations, but nothing about how they set bones.

Yikes! I didn’t want to cut off my hero’s leg, just lay him up for a few weeks, while the heroine frantically searched for him.

So, I tried another approach. I searched for the origins of the use of Plaster of Paris for the setting of bones.

What I found was that Plaster of Paris came into use as early as 1852, nine years before the American Civil War began. In fact, even before that time … “The orthopedic cast had been used since the 1800s. During the Crimean War, other materials that would harden into a cast were used to set broken bones.” http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-an-orthopedic-cast.htm

This version was heavier than the Plaster of Paris cast that came into use later and required the patient to be confined to bed. http://www.castliner.com/history.html

“Plaster of Paris bandages were introduced in different forms by 2 army surgeons …. A brief note describing his” … (Antonius Mathijsen 1805-1878) … “method was published on January 30, 1852; it was followed shortly by more complete accounts. In these accounts Mathijsen emphasized that only simple materials were required and the bandage could be quickly applied without assistance. The bandages hardened rapidly, provided an exact fit and could be windowed and bivalved easily. Mathijsen used coarsely woven materials, usually linen, into which dry Plaster of Paris had been rubbed thoroughly. The bandages were then moistened with a wet sponge or brush as they were applied and rubbed by hand until they hardened.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cast_(orthopedic)

So, while they had shortages of all kinds of supplies during the Civil War and likely used splints and amputations as remedies in the field hospital, if a patient made it as far as a civilian or military hospital, plaster casts could have been used, since they existed well before the 1860s.

Since my hero is being cared for by his friend, a Confederate physician who’s set up a hospital in the home of a Petersburg civilian, I decided that his friend could have squirreled away some supplies. And since the materials to make Plaster of Paris casts are simple and the cast could be applied by the physician without assistance, he’d be able to make a Plaster of Paris cast.

And my hero could keep his leg.

Sources: http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-an-orthopedic-cast.htm
http://www.castliner.com/history.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cast_(orthopedic)

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