Humanitarian Principles – II

Jonathan Letterman was born in Canonsburg, PA as the son of a surgeon, and was destined to have a medical career. When he graduated from medical school, he took a position with the Army as an Assistant Surgeon.

During most of his early career with the Army, he was involved in campaigns against Native Americans. When the Civil War started, he became the medical director of the Army of the Potomac. He was told to do whatever it takes to improve medical care for soldiers. What he found was appalling.

In a short period of time, Dr. Letterman brought about the following innovations:

  • Triage practices for the wounded
  • First aid stations close to the battlefields
  • Standard operating practices for the treatment of soldiers
  • A system for the distribution of medical supplies
  • A transport system for wounded soldiers.

Letterman’s innovations quickly proved successful. An Act of Congress made his innovations the standard practice for the Army. Prior to Letterman’s innovations, the mortality rate had been averaging 33%. After his innovations, the mortality rate dropped to 2%.

Another innovation of Letterman was the treatment of soldiers who were left behind after the battle was over. He created a medical encampment to treat soldiers from both sides. He was also able to secure support for their treatment after the battles were over.

Letterman’s innovations became the forerunner of the Geneva Convention which covers the treatment of combatants worldwide. See the Hidden Heroes story on Henry Dunant. Letterman never saw the worldwide acceptance of his innovations. He passed away at the age of 47.

Many innovations in retrospect seem obvious. Why didn’t anyone think of the changes Letterman brought about during earlier military conflicts? Is it because people just don’t care? Could it be that the status quo doesn’t seem to be a problem? Could it be that there isn’t an innovator who had the courage to challenge current practices?

Just imagine how many issues we face as a society that have a need for an innovator to step forward. Where are the innovators? Are they just not available, or are they intimidated by the criticism they are likely to face? What might we do as a society to be more accepting and encouraging of innovators?

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“Initiative is doing the right thing without being told.”   – Victor Hugo (Author)

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