Joseph Lister published his “Antiseptic Principle of the Practice of Surgery” in 1867; it was one of the major milestones on the road to modern medicine. In the next 40 years, Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch developed a firm basis for the germ theory of disease; vaccines for cholera, anthrax, rabies, typhoid fever and plague were developed, and a cure for malaria found. The outbreak of the First World War, however, showed that medical care lagged for those injured by the mass-produced weapons that now saturated the battlefield. Some of the medical technology here was developed specifically in response to the millions of casualties caused by explosive shells and high-velocity bullets. X-ray imaging was a fairly recent invention, but had been quickly developed into a useful mobile tool for military medical facilities. If necessity is the mother of invention, the use of sphagnum moss as a wound dressing goes firmly in that category, given the acute shortage of cotton and linen for that purpose. In a war with such a great need for military manpower, one priority for those who were not severely injured was for as speedy a recovery as possible in order to shorten the length of time that soldiers were kept out of front line trenches. Some of the machines devised to keep soldiers limber and strong look quite a lot like the machines we use in our gyms today for exercise. Those who were permanently or severely injured, then as now, could only rely on medical technology to a limited extent; in 1915 rehabilitation for these soldiers focused largely on attempting to provide the patient with enough mobility and training to carry on a trade and so avoid being an economic burden.

We might think the science of a century ago as crude, but we can still recognize the roots of our own system of treatments 100 years on, in these snapshots of the latest medical technology from 1915.

You can peruse the history of modern medicine in the full Archive of Scientific American from 1845 at