Book Review: Images of Civil War Medicine: A Photographic History, Gordon Dammann (2007)

Thursday, January 3rd, 2008

90% Civil War Portraits, 10% Medical Photography

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

Though IMAGES OF CIVIL WAR MEDICINE: A PHOTOGRAPHIC HISTORY sounds as though it should be packed with images of, well, Civil War medicine, it’s surprisingly light on photographs of medical procedures, instruments, disorders, and injuries. Instead, a majority of the photos are of people (soldiers, doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel) and places (make-shift hospitals, encampments, and battlefields), resulting in a less gruesome – and interesting – volume than the title would lead you to expect.

In IMAGES OF CIVIL WAR MEDICINE, authors and Civil War buffs Gordon Dammann and Alfred Jay Bollett give a brief overview of the state of medicine during the American Civil War. The written word takes a backseat to the myriad Civil War-era photos, particularly of medical staff and volunteers. Indeed, those interested in the history of photography, and Civil War photography in particular, will mostly likely find this to be an invaluable resource.

However, I am neither. I had hoped to learn more about this history of specific medical procedures, but was disappointed to find that a majority of the photos do not involve the actual practice of medicine, but rather are of medical practitioners. In fact, only one chapter (“Wounds and Diseases”) deals with Civil War medicine – and it’s the last chapter, at that! The other seven chapters leading up to “Wounds and Diseases” mostly deal with people and places – medical educators, nurses and volunteers, the US Sanitary Commission, dentists, morticians, ambulances, field hospitals, etc. While I found the topics somewhat interesting, the coverage was superficial. In particular, I thought the chapter on nursing was fascinating, but the subject was only given passing attention. This is understandable for a book that deals primarily with images; however, since I wasn’t impressed with the variety of photos, I found myself relying on the text more than I might otherwise.

Overall, I give IMAGES OF CIVIL WAR MEDICINE three stars. The volume contains an impressive number of Civil War photos, as promised; unfortunately, the variety of subjects in these photographs is lacking.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)