Surviving a severe burn, historically

Supposing you’re in a fairly progressive city (New Orleans), circa the early 1860’s (before the Civil War got there). Now, suppose you suffered third degree burns over your hands and face; how would this be treated, how likely is survival, and how long would it be before you “recovered”? I’m aware that you would be severely scarred, and you wouldn’t ever be “fine”, as it were, but how long before you could use your hands again?

I have references to modern burn treatment, but have been having trouble locating historical technique.

I don’t have cites for this, but from my own experience with burns - if they were severe enough the victim probably would not get use of his hands at all - if he lived. Infection in a burn is painful and can cause systemic infection of the entire body.

I suppose I should have just pointed you at search engines, but like a lotta Dopers, I’m inclined to want to help people.

One thing I did find out by Googling, A9, and AskJeeves is that there ain’t much on the web (for free, that is). You can try going to these sites and doing guest registrations:
Journal of Burn Care & Rehabilitation
New England Journal of Medicine
Both links are already set for articles about the history of burn care.

Or you can go to that thing called a “library” - there are several books I found references for. This one is from a librarians’ maillist: Rising from the Flames, by Albert Carter III and Jane Petro, MD.

If this weren’t summer, I’d think you were asking for help with a homework assignment. Or is this an over-the-summer paper?

Interesting, I thought I’d already indicated I was having trouble locating information on my own… Oh, there it is, on the second paragraph. Oh, and also, there you admit that search engines aren’t helping, so your comment to use a search engine was sort of pointless, huh?

The reason I came to Straight Dope is because, gasp, this is supposed to be a place to find answers to troubling questions. If you don’t want to help, why did you bother? Or if I scroll down the entire list of questions here, did you say the same thing to all 10,000 some posts?

No, I’m about twenty years too old for homework. This is for a novel I’m working on.

Sorry, that was unnecessarily crass of me. (Apparantly you can’t edit posts on guest status, or I’d have removed it. I hate being perceived as rude.)

No, this isn’t the only research I’m doing. I thought perhaps there might be somebody here with some practical or expert knowledge on the subject. I appreciate the links you offered. My attempts at Googling have resulted in the web sites of actual burn centers that don’t offer historical perspective, at least not in the detail I need.

I have not been to the library yet, as I have only just begun looking into this matter, and have a full time job and other interests that have not yet allowed it in my schedule. I am, however, an ardent researcher, and I certainly plan to pursue that course.

I apologize for my attitude previously, and welcome any other commentary on the topic.


You can’t edit posts as a full member, either - which is why we say “preview is your friend” around here.

Only mods can edit stuff around here.

My suspicion is that most would die – infection is the big problem with extensive burns and there really was no good way to treat infection until the 1940s. Many patients with burns to the hand require extensive surgery in order to preserve and restore function. The hands are particularly delicate and I think you would have to be very lucky to retain any kinds of extensive function after severe burns before the modern surgical (anesthesia, reconstruction, microsurgery, skin grafting, antibiotics) era.

It is a bit later (the 1920s), but I would take Django Reinhart as an example. His left hand was burned so severely in a caravan fire that his fingers were fused. Doctors did separate the fingers, but he had no use of them and spent his guitar playing career using just his thumb, index, and middle finger on the fretboard.

Hmmm. That’s what I seem to be running into. Thanks for the info.

I’m going to keep looking for some case histories contemporary to the era, but it looks like I’m going to have to resort to deus ex machina . It’s a supernatural novel I’m working on, but not a supernatural character who needs to survive this severe burning.

Anyway, thanks again.


Sorry for mistaking you for a student. We have an unofficial rule here that We Don’t Do Students’ Research for them. When someone posts a big, open-ended question like that, especially during the school year, it usually turns out to ba a student trying to sucker someone else into doing his/her research for them.

We do have a number of experts here, both official and unofficial, but if there’s someone with history of medicine (other than the kinds of stuff - landmarks and such - that both doctors and biologists learn) I’m not aware of it.

Structuring web searches is something of an Art. I’ve been perfecting my skills for it for, hmmm, 13+ years now. Plus what I learned doing database searches in the 80s. I oughta be better at it! :slight_smile:

I suspect that will be your best source. I wouldn’t pass by books with other primary foci, either. Some books about Florence Nightingale and other pioneers might just have useful information. There have been serious burns in every war since gunpowder became a factor, so I’d also search on military medicine.

Accepted. We all go off half-cocked at times. It’s a human failing.

This is just from memories of reading historical novels but I seem to recall characters surviving but having to wear masks in order to hide disfigured faces., not so much of a focus on useful hands.

In ‘The English Patient’ there are some glimpses of how the desert nomads treated burns - maybe if you look into Arabic medical practices ? A lot of their knowlegde eventually made it to us. (Aloe Vera was used a lot I think.)