Hamilton County Civil War Roundtable to discuss medicine 



By Chris Bavender 

It’s a familiar scene in the movies about the Civil War: a doctor pours whiskey over a wound to sterilize it while telling the soldier to bite down on something while he cuts out the bullet. However, historian Ginny Terpening says what you see wasn’t necessarily reality.

“Hollywood has done us all a disservice in ways. It shows the Civil War where the patient is asked to bite on a bullet or a knife, but they did have anesthesia. They had it by 1846,” she said. “They had a stethoscope, a hyperdermic needle. It wasn’t as primitive as it seems.”



Terpening will discuss “Medical Care during the Civil War” at the Oct. 12 meeting of the Hamilton County Civil War Roundtable. The meeting starts at 7 p.m. at Carmel City Hall.

“Medical care is always of interest, because many people make it out to be less humane than it was. Ether was available for the most part for Union troops and more readily even for Confederate troops,” said Terry Cross, roundtable vice president and program chair. “Clearly there were probably hundreds of thousands of amputations done without any kind of medicine at all. It was a terrible thing.”

Terpening gained her insight and expertise in Civil War medicine during her 10 years as executive director of the Indiana Medical History Museum. Other roles include curator of education at the Indiana State Museum, deputy director at the Indiana Historical Bureau and a member of the board of directors for the Marion County Historical Society. Her interest in history started in the sixth grade.

“I was studying the list of explorers, and my mother was cooking dinner, and dad called to say he wouldn’t be home for dinner. So, she put it all away because it was a meat and potatoes dinner, and we were two little girls,” Terpening said. “So, she started pancakes and that left me with about 30 minutes of extra time, so I memorized the list, and the next day in class the teacher asked about that, and I put my hand up, and I was the star of class. So, from then on there was pressure to know that stuff, and it went form there.”

She also had a small part in football history. Her husband worked for the Colts when the team moved from Baltimore to Indianapolis in 1984, so the family found themselves in the Hoosier state.

“We have two sons who are very tall, and this is a basketball place and Maryland wasn’t, so the boys thrived here,” she said.

The roundtable has more than 30 members who range in age from early teens – attending with their parents or grandparents – to those in their 80s. Anyone is welcome to attend meetings.

“While we do ask people to become members – dues are $30 for an individual or $35 a year for a family – we won’t turn anyone away if they want to just come and listen,” Cross said. “But we do use that money to continue to support the club and bring in speakers who don’t live nearby.”

For more, call 317-432-5785.

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