Wednesday, June 30, 2010

"Infectious Diseases of the Civil War" Presentation by Barbara Hemmingsen

Barbara Hemmingsen started her presentation, titled "Infectious Diseases of the Civil War," saying "Even though I'm no longer teaching microbiology, I still love bacteria." It drew a nervous laugh from the 30 or so attendees at the Chula Vista Genealogical Society program meeting today at the Chula Vista South Branch Library.

Barbara has possession of 240 letters from her great-great-grandfather Joseph Bruff, a Civil War officer from Ohio, to his family back home from his three plus years of service, mainly in Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and Texas. Even though the talk was about infectious diseases, the excerpts from Joseph's letters made this talk come alive. This was a real person that suffered and survived. Barbara says "I know this man better than my own father." What a beautiful collection of letters. She passed a copy of one around sent to his 13-year old son back home telling him not to come help him in the War.

In addition to describing the casualty rates, Barbara discussed the factors involved in deaths from disease, the infection causes in soldiers, the treatment of wounds and diseases, the microorganisms and the symptoms of the different maladies, with gruesome stories and pictures of some of them. Cholera, dysentery, typhoid fever, typhus, pneumonia, malaria, yellow fever, smallpox and body lice were discussed in some detail.

There were very few effective treatments of infectious diseases because the "doctors" did not understand that there were microorganisms that caused and prolonged the diseases. She noted that there the treatment for wounds consisted of bedrest, pain control with morphine, quinine and limb amputation.

The diet of Civil War soldiers didn't help much - salted pork, bacon, beef, flour, corn meal, hardtack, beans, rice, sugar, salt, vinegar, coffee and tea, plus fruit and berries gathered along the roads. In one letter, Joseph Bruff noted that he ate raw bacon because he was so hungry.

Barbara will place the originals of the letters in the Western Reserve Historical Society archives for posterity, and she hopes to write a book detailing all of the persons described in the letters of her ancestor.

This was an intriguing and informative presentation about "real life" people and situations.

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