On June 6, our nation will pause to observe the 75th anniversary of D-Day. This recollection of that pivotal World War II battle focuses on memorializing the soldiers who lost their lives during that engagement on the beaches of Normandy, France.
This commemoration can also serve as a time to consider other meaningful occurrences that took place during that long war. One is the milestone advancements that were generated in the practice of medicine during the conflict. These achievements saved lives on the battlefields and beyond.
Historians have noted that a paradox of warfare is that the more brutal and widespread the combat, the greater are the resulting medical breakthroughs. For progress in healthcare, World War II is one of the most successful confrontations ever fought.
The new proficiencies gave the American military and its allies a distinct advantage in saving lives. In the European theater, 4% of injured American soldiers died. This contrasts to the 10% mortality rate of wounded German combatants.
Accomplishments spanned the entire spectrum of medicine. Many of the innovations that transpired from 1939 to 1945 were integrated into the standard of care after the war.
Pioneering blood work in dried plasma combined with a nationwide donor effort permitted more effective management of life threatening injuries and made transfusions commonplace.
Physicians strictly applied public sanitation measures for the disposal of human waste. This curbed a wide assortment of illnesses that had arisen in earlier wars. Pharmaceutical companies manufactured the life-saving penicillin.
In the Pacific, vaccinating the troops controlled yellow fever. The work on tetanus that had started in World War I was refined and dramatically reduced the risk of that disease.
Surgeons skilled in orthopedics preserved injured limbs that in earlier conflicts would have been amputated. Similarly, technical advances in surgical operations on the abdomen and chest saved countless lives.
But not all wounds were physical; psychiatrists diagnosed and treated “battle fatigue.”
Ancillary workers used novel triage and evacuation maneuvers on the battlefields and creative measures to organize acute care hospitals.
As in prior military confrontations, World War II gave doctors intense practical experiences. But unlike in previous engagements, this exposure to new medical challenges arrived at a moment in history when American medicine was in ascendancy. There was a newfound faith by government officials in the abilities of American physicians.
As a result, federal authorities actively promoted the development of the medical profession during the war. The effect of this new approach is best illustrated by what occurred to the pre-war discord that existed between two physician groups: generalists and specialists. Each faction believed that they should dominate the medical profession in the future.
The United States military leaders recognized that doctors with augmented training possessed unique knowledge that was essential to improving medical outcomes. Higher ranks were awarded to those armed forces’ medical personnel with specialty credentials.
This de-facto acknowledgement of the importance of board certification ensured that this benchmark of specialty training would become a mainstay in American medicine. Today, it is an integral part of our nation’s healthcare delivery system.
The government also organized diverse groups of academic researchers and funded their activities. This effort persisted after the conflict. Increased federal grants to civilian investigators benefited the population as a whole.
By 1945, these efforts collectively generated a positive impact on the practice of medicine. Health care in the United States was at the starting line of a new era of medical diagnosis and treatment. Driven by a dynamic research ethos and a fresh conviction of therapeutic relevance, the scale of the American medical enterprise would exponentially explode into the 21st century.
Today, 72% of American citizens born in 1944, at the time of the Battle of Normandy, are still alive. They and subsequent generations have benefited from the significant healthcare advances that occurred during World War II.
These wartime medical innovations are important to recall as we honor and remember the ultimate sacrifice made by many on D-Day, 75 years ago.
Stolz is a retired physician and author of the book, “Medicine from Cave Dwellers to Millennials.”