Chloroform: Infinite Blessing and Bitter Memories

University of Missouri-Kansas City

Chloroform tin used by Civil War surgeons to render wounded soldiers unconscious. Courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Follow along as the John Wornall House Museum builds an exhibition exploring how John Wornall’s home became a field hospital for both the Union and Confederate wounded. “Farmstead to Field Hospital: A Family in the Crossfire of War and the Making of Modern-Day Medicine,” will commemorate the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Westport. It will be on display between September 26 and November 9, 2014.

This exhibition will be presented by The Wornall/Majors House Museums in partnership with the Metropolitan Medical Society of Greater Kansas City, the Clendening History of Medicine Museum, University of Kansas Medical Center, and the Kansas City Public Library.

 

After the Battle of Westport, the nostrils of 9-year-old Frank Wornall must have been filled with the smell of chloroform as he hauled water and ripped cloth into strips to use as bandages for wounded soldiers. Surgeons operating in tents pitched in the front lawn rendered wounded soldiers into unconsciousness with chloroform from tin flasks such as the one featured in the exhibit.

Even before the battle on October 22-24, 1864, Frank had seen and experienced his share of the trauma of war. Early in the conflict, “Doc” Jennison’s army briefly occupied Frank’s home and robbed the family farm of its livestock. Later, Missouri “bushwhackers” tortured Frank’s father, John Wornall, in front of him and his mother, Eliza, as they tried to extort money and find the location of allegedly buried loot. One spring evening, a running gunfight between federal troops and guerillas, who dressed in Union blue uniforms and were led by George Todd, interrupted the Wornall family dinner as the battle ranged up and down the road that would later receive the family name.

As Frank’s father stepped outside to investigate the ruckus, he saw a man shot dead just yards from the home. After that incident, John Wornall gathered 31 bodies in a wagon and hauled them to the Union command post in Westport (inside the present-day boundaries of Kansas City, Missouri). He left 20 Bushwhacker’s bodies in the field for their families to claim.

For a time during the three-day Battle of Westport, John Wornall was involuntarily pressed into service by a detachment of Union cavalry from Kansas and his whereabouts and safety were unknown. Later, as Price's troops pressed north toward Westport, young Frank was temporarily blocked access to his home by a column of suntanned Confederate cavalry as he hid in a ravine south of the home. During the heaviest fighting on Seth Ward's south pasture (now Loose Park), he and his mother sheltered in the root cellar. When John Wornall finally returned to his home, he discovered it had been converted into a field hospital used alternately by both armies. A pile of human limbs in the yard grew so high it almost reached an equal level with the home's second story windows.

Nearly all of the furniture was removed from the home onto the lawn to make way for pallets. Seven dead Confederate soldiers, including a colonel, lay side-by-side on the southwest lawn. Wounded and anesthetized patients recovered and moaned from every room in the home. Mixed with the sights and sounds of the aftermath of battle that filled Frank’s senses, he likely caught a whiff of the distinct sweet smell of chloroform. Its method of administration—by placing drops on a cloth shaped into a cone placed over the patient’s nose and mouth—often left everyone in the operating room slightly affected by the drug.

During the Civil War, chloroform slowly replaced ether as an incapacitating agent to subdue struggling and suffering patients. Compared to ether, chloroform worked quicker; it was effective in nine minutes, compared to the 16 needed for ether. It was also less flammable in its gaseous state—an important quality for battlefield surgeons who often worked at night surrounded by the open flames of lanterns and candles. Chloroform was used in approximately 800,000 surgical procedures during the war, including some 50,000 amputations.

Reproduction of a Chisolm Inhaler, invented by Confederate surgeon Julian John Chisolm for the administration of chloroform to wounded soldiers. Courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Chloroform use was not, however, without its dangers. Victorian Era surgeons could more easily poke, prod, and try experimental surgeries on insensible patients. As a result, surgical excisions could be left open longer, facilitating infections. The drug’s misuse could paralyze the patient’s lungs or cause heart arrhythmias. Deaths relating to chloroform were widely publicized in the newspapers of the time, and some soldiers elected to undergo surgery without it despite its recommended use by the medical manuals of both armies.

“What an infinite blessing” were the words uttered by Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson before succumbing to the anesthetic properties of chloroform. Thanks to the power of the drug to depress the central nervous system, the amputation of General Jackson’s left arm was painless. But he, like many soldiers of the Civil War, did not survive the resulting infections. Surgeons of the era terribly misunderstood the mechanisms of disease transmission, and the mortality rate following an amputation was around 24 percent over the course of the war.

Science tells us that the human sense of smell is most closely associated with memory. The scent of chloroform would have surely stirred the memories of Frank Wornall. Those must have been bitter memories too.

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