Gail Jarrow Discusses Her Latest Book, Blood and Germs: The Civil War Battle Against Wounds and Disease

Gail Jarrow explores the science and oftentimes grisly history of U.S. Civil War medicine, using actual medical cases and first-person accounts by soldiers, doctors, and nurses. Jarrow discusses why she wrote this book, and also relates why she feels this history can help young readers better understand our current struggle with COVID-19.

 

 

 

Called a “fascinating example of excellence in juvenile nonfiction" by Kirkus Reviews in a starred review, Blood and Germs: The Civil War Battle Against Wounds and Disease (Calkins Creek/Boyds Mills & Kane) is the latest title by award-winning author Gail Jarrow. In the book, Jarrow explores the science and oftentimes grisly history of U.S. Civil War medicine, using actual medical cases and first-person accounts by soldiers, doctors, and nurses. Jarrow took some time recently to discuss why she wrote this book, the first title in her new “Medical Fiascoes” series, and also relates why she feels this history can help young readers better understand our current struggle with COVID-19.

After writing extensively about deadly diseases in your books Red Madness, Bubonic Panic, and Fatal Fever, you're now embarking the brand-new "Medical Fiascoes" series with the publication of Blood and Germs. What was the impetus and your motivation behind this new series?

I’m fascinated by the history of medicine, especially from the mid-1800s to mid-1900s. During that period, the medical community made extraordinary advances in identifying the causes of disease and in developing cures. Some of this progress came from research. But in other cases, doctors and scientists learned important lessons from their mistakes. In "Medical Fiascoes", I explore disastrous errors and the ways those led to better health care.

You really don't hold back on the "yuck factor" in Blood and Germs! The book shows the graphic and gory reality of what really happened during the Civil War in terms of disease, injuries, and battlefield conditions. How do you think readers will react to this—and why?

The title and cover are warnings to the squeamish. I taught middle school science, and I know that many readers want to hear the specifics, no matter how gross and gruesome. They can handle the details describing how bullets and bacteria damage the human body. I made sure to explain that, despite the suffering, the Civil War brought new medical knowledge that benefitted future generations.

How is the history that you share in Blood and Germs a springboard to a conversation about the world today? How can teachers, librarians, parents, and kids relate what you write about and reveal in Blood and Germs to the present?

Recognizing parallels between the past and present can help us solve current problems and give us hope. Civil War medical leaders were overwhelmed with the sick and injured. They didn’t know that bacteria and viruses caused illnesses and wound infections, and they weren’t sure how to stop the epidemics in camps and hospitals. Faced with staggering numbers of cases, doctors and nurses were forced to adapt. They figured out how to care for the sick and wounded more effectively. They found ways to reduce disease spread and infections. They shared information with colleagues about what worked and what didn’t. Some of their solutions are still used today.

When COVID-19 hit, the medical community was in the dark about the new virus and the disease it caused. Just like Civil War doctors and nurses, everyone had to cope, learn, and innovate in order to save lives and slow the pandemic. The progress already made in a few months is remarkable.

Even though women could not fight in the Civil War, they nevertheless played a role—and you highlight several women in this book for their contributions to the war. Why was this valuable to include in the book?

Neither side was prepared for the War’s medical impact. Both armies desperately needed help caring for the sick and wounded. Women stepped up. They volunteered as nurses. They collected money, food, and supplies to keep the soldiers clean, fed, and comfortable. Without women’s essential assistance, the death count would have been even higher.

Your author's note at the end of the book gives readers a glimpse into your research process. Talk a little more about that process. Did you have to travel to research, did you do your research online, or both? How long did it take you to research this book, and how long did it take you to write it?

My research took more than half the time involved in producing the book. I put in several months before beginning to write and then did more work throughout the writing process when I needed additional details. Besides the medical facts, Blood and Germs includes personal stories of soldiers, doctors, nurses, and volunteers. I searched for these in primary sources such as memoirs, military records, and the census. Civil War medical reports are online, including case histories of thousands of soldiers. I relied on a university library to track down materials available only in book form. To gather extra information and to view medical equipment, I traveled to battlefields and museums that highlight Civil War medicine. The entire process, including photo research and editing, took more than a year.

What's the next book in the "Medical Fiascoes" series?

AMBUSHED!: The Assassination Plot Against President Garfield (Fall 2021) tells the story of the medical mistakes made in the aftermath of Garfield’s 1881 shooting. These errors led to the president’s eighty days of agony and forever changed medical care in the United States.


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