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Photographs of wounded Civil War soldiers taken by New York surgeon were used to determine the level of the post-war pension payments

Nikola Simonovski

One of the factors that played a significant role in the development of medicine was photography. As a particular area of photography, medical photography documents various injuries and diseases. The photographs are later used by medical professionals in research, publications, and clinical documentation.

The medical photography requires high-level technical skills, as they help and educate medical professionals. Before the invention of photography, artists were hired in the hospitals to illustrate what they see. Medical photography began in 1840 in Paris, France, where Alfred Francois Donne, a doctor, and bacteriologist, used a camera to document bones and teeth.

John H Bowers, a 19-year-old corporal, wounded on March 25th, 1865, at the battle of Petersburgh Author: U.S. National Library of Medicine

John H Bowers, a 19-year-old corporal, wounded on March 25th, 1865, at the battle of Petersburgh Author: U.S. National Library of Medicine

 

Ludwig Kohn, a 26-year-old private, wounded at the battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. The photograph is taken two years later when Kohn was admitted to Harewood General Hospital in 1865 after suffering so much pain from the rib-fracturing gunshot wound that he could not lie down to sleep instead having to sit upright Author: U.S. National Library of Medicine

Ludwig Kohn, a 26-year-old private, wounded at the battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. The photograph is taken two years later when Kohn was admitted to Harewood General Hospital in 1865 after suffering so much pain from the rib-fracturing gunshot wound that he could not lie down to sleep instead having to sit upright Author: U.S. National Library of Medicine

 

Peter Strien, a 21-year-old private, wounded March 25th, 1865, at the battle of Fort Stedman Author: U.S. National Library of Medicine

Peter Strien, a 21-year-old private, wounded March 25th, 1865, at the battle of Fort Stedman Author: U.S. National Library of Medicine

 

William A Donan, a 26-year-old sergeant, wounded on June 3rd, 1864, at the battle of Cold Harbor Author: U.S. National Library of Medicine

William A Donan, a 26-year-old sergeant, wounded on June 3rd, 1864, at the battle of Cold Harbor Author: U.S. National Library of Medicine

 

Edward Estelle, private, Co. B, 20th Regt. Pa. Vols. aged 42, admitted to the Harewood U.S. Gen’l Hospital April 5, 1865, suffering from the amputation of left arm … a result of a gunshot wound  Author: U.S. National Library of Medicine  Author: U.S. National Library of Medicine

Edward Estelle, private, Co. B, 20th Regt. Pa. Vols. aged 42, admitted to the Harewood U.S. Gen’l Hospital April 5, 1865, suffering from the amputation of left arm … a result of a gunshot wound  Author: U.S. National Library of Medicine  Author: U.S. National Library of Medicine

As for the United States, one of the earliest medical photographers was Reed. B. Bontecou, a surgeon from New York. Dr. Bontecou was also a soldier in the American Civil War (1861-1865), so he took his camera with him to the battlefront. Besides treating the wounded soldiers, he also took photographs of them.

He documented wounds, treatments, surgeries, and his working environment. Doctor Reed played a critical role in the identification of a huge number of casualties of the Civil War. Dr. Bontecou’s images were even used to determine post-war pensions, as the officials used the photos to confirm the wounds of the soldiers.

Martin Restle, serg’t Co. G., 52nd, N.Y. Vet. Vols ; native of Germany … circular amputation of left leg … in consequence of gunshot wound, received … April 2nd, 1865 .   Author: U.S. National Library of Medicine

Martin Restle, serg’t Co. G., 52nd, N.Y. Vet. Vols ; native of Germany … circular amputation of left leg … in consequence of gunshot wound, received … April 2nd, 1865 .   Author: U.S. National Library of Medicine

 

William Trefts, Private, Co. G, 119th Pa. Vols., aged 21, was admitted to Harewood U.S.A. Gen’l Hospital, April 12, 1865 , with a gunshot wound … Wounded April 2d, 1865, at battle of Petersburg,  Author: U.S. National Library of Medicine

William Trefts, Private, Co. G, 119th Pa. Vols., aged 21, was admitted to Harewood U.S.A. Gen’l Hospital, April 12, 1865 , with a gunshot wound … Wounded April 2d, 1865, at battle of Petersburg,  Author: U.S. National Library of Medicine

The photographs of Dr. Reed were one of the largest sources in the creation of the Otis Archives in the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington. Some of these photos were used to present the use of plastic surgery in a face and body repair.

These images have been a part of numerous exhibitions, and many of them have been displayed at the prestigious Metropolitan Museum of Art, as part of the Photography and American Civil War exhibition.

Edward Estelle, private, Co. B, 20th Regt. Pa. Vols. aged 42, admitted to the Harewood U.S. Gen’l Hospital April 5, 1865, suffering from the amputation of left arm … a result of a gunshot wound … Author: U.S. National Library of Medicine

Edward Estelle, private, Co. B, 20th Regt. Pa. Vols. aged 42, admitted to the Harewood U.S. Gen’l Hospital April 5, 1865, suffering from the amputation of left arm … a result of a gunshot wound … Author: U.S. National Library of Medicine

The Burns Archive paid tribute to Dr. Bontecou in 2011, by releasing a book called “Shooting Soldiers: Civil War Medical Photography by Reed B. Bontecou.”. Besides a big selection of Dr. Bontecous many photographs, the book also contains a short history and biography of the doctor.

Read another story from us: During the American Civil War, Walt Whitman volunteered as a nurse and treated wounded Union soldiers

It is safe to say that many of the injured soldiers would not have got what they deserved without Dr. Bontecou’s photographs.