Modern Medicine and the Great War

This website is based on a display that was on view at the National Museum of American History from April 2017 to August 2019.


In April 1917 the United States entered a world war that had already claimed millions of lives and left millions more disabled by wounds or disease.

Health and fitness were central to building a strong military force, and sick and wounded soldiers required treatment to return them to the fight. The task ahead was enormous, but developments in science-based medicine—such as identifying microorganisms as the cause of diseases and developing sterile surgical procedures—gave medical practice increased prestige. Armed with new technologies and scientific methods, medical leaders were confident that health could be measured, disease prevented, and wounded bodies restored.

The war would put these ideas to the test on an unprecedented scale and under the most difficult conditions. Medical practices developed during the war changed the country’s approach to health care in ways that continue to affect us today.

The Hurry Call, Night of May 30, 1918, in the Toul Sector drawn by American Expeditionary Forces combat artist Harry Townsend.