Military History Military Medicine
Frank W. Stahnisch
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0130


Military medicine can be seen as being as old as armed conflict itself in higher civilizations—such as those of the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Egyptians (from c. 4000 BCE). This article is an examination of the manifold efforts made to bolster military operations through actively “recycling” indispensable soldiers and army personnel. Major changes occurred with the introduction, in Hellenistic armies, of medics and nurses who took care of the wounded and the sick. With the Roman armies’ systematic organizational structures, legion surgeons and physicians were present even during periods of active combat and conducted surgery and wound closures. The following medieval period showed progress in institutionalized forms of care, from the early xenodochia of the Mediterranean to the Christian hospices and monastic facilities that took care of pilgrims, knights, and crusaders. Large-scale theological hospitals appeared, laying the groundwork for clinical care forms as well as serving as an early introduction to surgical training into medicine. During the early modern period, absolutist sovereigns endorsed large-scale standing armies, for the health of which specialized regimental surgeons had to be trained in the new academic medical faculties of southern and central Europe and in the later British colleges of surgeons and navy surgeons. However, the history of military medicine is much broader than the surgical and treatment approaches employed on the battlefield. The early industrialized forms of warfare during the American Civil War witnessed further refinements in ambulatory care for wounded soldiers. Infectious disease and epidemics have caused many more casualties than battlefield injuries among most armies throughout history, and so the prevention of the spread of disease and the provision of nutrition and rest, along with the development of many varieties of rehabilitation measures, have become a large enterprise of military medicine. This trend was highly visible, for example, in the Spanish, British, French, and American colonial wars, from the 16th to the 20th centuries. From a quantitative perspective probably as many military medical innovations appeared during the 20th century as occurred in all previous centuries—owing, in no small part, to the enormous, unprecedented world and regional wars, with more than a hundred million casualties. Examples of these innovations are airborne- and tank-based rescue systems; specialized programs in military medical education; antibiotics; intensive care options; and medical care reactions to chemical, biological, and nuclear warfare as well as tremendous progress in body prosthetics and technological forms of therapy for posttraumatic stress disorders. In addition, the introduction of computers and informatics systems created never-anticipated options for medical care, research, rehabilitation, and social reintegration in the field of military medicine. Yet, progress and transformation in the long history of military medicine can hardly be isolated from the larger general context of the history of science, technology, and medicine and are fully intersected with dominant social, cultural, and economic changes, as the individual historical sections that follow demonstrate. In the latter part of this article, selected publications on major geographical regions of interest—Europe and America as well as Asia and Oceania—are provided.

General Overviews

Gabriel and Metz 1992 is a seminal two-volume work that, like McCallum 2008, sets the standard for a great variety of topics in the history of military medicine and that serves as the backbone of many undergraduate survey courses on the topic. The first volume surveys the period from ancient Greece to the Renaissance, whereas the second volume discusses the history of military medicine from the early modern period to the 20th century. While analyzing the past four hundred years of history in the second volume, the authors describe the Crimean War as one of the greatest medical disasters ever, with the engagement of Florence Nightingale (b. 1820–d. 1910) leading to the first systematic introduction of hygienic and sanitary standards on the battlefield and in military barracks and hospitals. Haller 2011 investigates similar developments in the context of the American Civil War (see also McPherson 2003). As specialized texts, Haller 2011 studies the role of ambulance technologies, Greenwood and Clifton Berry 2005 explores the sanitation role of embedded medics in army units, and Bellafaire and Graf 2009 analyzes the contributions of women doctors in war, a topic that is too often underexplored. Ash and Söllner 1996 provides an intriguing account of the impact of war (here: World War II) on research and higher learning, from an international perspective, whereas Assmann 1999 analyzes, from a literary perspective, the psychological and health consequences of warfare on modern societies in general and on war veterans in particular. Modern developments are succinctly covered in Cooter, et al. 1999, which is a valuable resource for graduate seminars.

  • Ash, Mitchell G., and Alfons Söllner, eds. Forced Migration and Scientific Change: Émigré German-Speaking Scientists and Scholars after 1933. Publications of the German Historical Institute. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

    This anthology provides various perspectives on émigré physicians and researchers during and after World War II, while also exploring their role in military medical research.

  • Assmann, Aleida. “Trauma des Krieges und Literatur.” In Trauma: Zwischen Psychoanalyse und kulturellem Deutungsmuster. Edited by Elisabeth Bronfen, Birgit R. Erdle, and Sigrid Weigel, 95–116. Literatur, Kultur, Geschlecht, Kleine Reihe. Cologne: Böhlau, 1999.

    A well-executed example of interdisciplinary work by a literary scholar on the impact of war and trauma on cultural forms of understanding and social behavior.

  • Bellafaire, Judith, and Mercedes Herrera Graf. Women Doctors in War. Williams-Ford Texas A&M University Military History. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2009.

    Gives a comprehensive account of the struggles of women doctors in the hierarchies of the military to gain acceptance and rise through the ranks, from the Spanish-American War to Afghanistan.

  • Cooter, Roger, Mark Harrison, and Steve Sturdy. Medicine and Modern Warfare. Papers presented at the conference “Medicine and the Management of Modern Warfare,” London, July 1995. Wellcome Institute Series in the History of Medicine. Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi, 1999.

    An excellently organized volume that introduces many important social, cultural, and epistemological topics on the role of medicine in modern warfare.

  • Gabriel, Richard A., and Karen S. Metz. A History of Military Medicine. Contributions in Military Studies 124. 2 vols. New York: Greenwood, 1992.

    A superb historical book that spans a period of roughly five thousand years. The book encompasses themes such as the medical support of wounded soldiers, developments in disease prevention, the interaction between military and civilian medicine, and veterans’ care.

  • Greenwood, John T., and F. Clifton Berry Jr. Medics at War: Military Medicine from Colonial Times to the 21st Century. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute, 2005.

    The authors give an important overview of the often neglected role of medics and nurses in modern warfare, while following a somewhat biased advocacy perspective. A more critical analysis of medics’ contribution to military medicine would have strongly benefited the book.

  • Haller, John S., Jr. Battlefield Medicine: A History of the Military Ambulance from the Napoleonic Wars through World War I. Medical Humanities. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2011.

    A modern and detailed account of the development of ambulance technologies and transport, from Dominique-Jean Larrey (b. 1766–d. 1842) to the airplane and tank transport systems of wounded soldiers in the Great War.

  • McCallum, Jack E. Military Medicine: From Ancient Times to the 21st Century. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2008.

    This is a useful volume for any survey course on the history of military medicine. However, the historiographical perspective is outdated (favoring a history-of-ideas approach over cultural history), and more modern literature could have been included.

  • McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford History of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    McPherson’s book is a one-volume account of the general history of the American Civil War that explores many topics on military medicine, including war surgery, the transport of wounded soldiers, and the development of military hospitals. Originally published in 1988.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.