Regency Reader Questions: Gunshot Wounds and Memory Loss

Moniker/Name: Mia

Source of Question: Research

Your Question: I am currently writing my own Regency book and I was wondering what a physician would do with a gunshot wound to someone’s side and a gunshot graze to the head? Would he stitch it up and let them heal and then just take the stitches out? I have been trying to find it online. And would these potentially cause someone to lose their memory? Thanks for the help.

Thanks for the question, Mia!

By the 19th century, doctors had a century or two to learn about treating gunshot wounds.  While anesthesia and antiseptic treatment would not be widely available until the middle of the 19th century, advance treatment coming from the battle field would have given medical personnel some techniques for dealing with gunshot wounds.

By the 17th century, there were specialized instruments for removing musket balls, and dress and bandaging, alcohol and turpentine, and even pressure sponges were available.  The tourniquet was also improved in the 17th century to reduce blood flow and help with amputations (http://sharpecompendium.net/medicine.php).  In the Regency era, the most common guns were muskets which were low velocity spherical balls…producing a wound that was “round and approximately the size of the ball” with some bruising/bleeding around the wound (Gunshot Wounds: Practical Aspects of Firearms, Ballistics, and Forensic Techniques, 1998, p. 145).  They typically lodged in the body.

The biggest problem with gunshot wounds before antiseptic was infection (Triumphs and Wonders of the 19th Century, 1899).  According to this book, until the 1880s, an abdominal gun shot would have been fatal, mostly because the lack of sterilization to instruments or antiseptics to treat wounds.

In the case Mia presents, we have a graze to the dome and one to the side.  A graze likely would have been cleaned with alcohol or turpentine and bandaged, and a doctor would have kept an eye on it for infection and/or fever.  A wound to the side, provided it missed vital organs, likely would have undergone similar treatment.  It a bullet was lodged, it would be removed “only if within easy reach of the surgeon”, closed with “a piece of onion…placed in the cavity before closure, and…reopened in 1 to 2 days” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2706344/).  A poultice, in lieu of an onion, might also be applied to the site of the wound.   Cauterizing wounds, particularly gunshot wounds, was popular in the 16th century.

In this case infection was also probable, as the instruments to remove the bullet were not sterilized.  Infection would have been concerning, and you should definitely think through ways to address this.  Keep in mind, also, that doctors were under the assumption well into the early 19th century that pus was a sign of a wound healing rather than an infection, so a lot of time minor infections would not be treated with the limited means available.

Lots of authors use a housekeeper or heroine with special knowledge of antiseptic herbs, a hero who brashly pours alcohol on the wound, or a knowledgeable valet who had some battlefield surgery experience.  I can’t advise how you get around infection…but just be aware that this was a common problem.

Causes for amnesia typically are stroke or some time of encephalitis (brain inflammation), including from head trauma.  I suppose an infection could cause one of the two leading causes…but I am not a medical doctor, so that’s as far as I speculate on that!

Hope this helps!

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