The roots of today’s orthopedic practices and other pioneering medical techniques can be found in the Civil War field hospitals where Dr. John Hill Brinton saved lives.
The work at these field hospitals is not forgotten as Hollidaysburg resident Doug Decker brings Brinton to life at Civil War reenactments and historical lectures and while teaching college students in medical school. .
Decker has been portraying Dr. Brinton nationwide for nearly two decades and busting the myths perpetuated by Hollywood films.
For example, the blood splattered on his medical apron when portraying Brinton as his, took on a rusty brown color. It is noticeably different from the bright red fake blood worn by other medical reenactors, he said.
By day, Decker works as a medical technologist in the lab at Van Zandt VA Medical Center.
In his spare time, however, he becomes Dr. Brinton.
Decker has meticulously studied Brinton and uses authentic instruments and replicated medicine bottles to set the stage. But what really sets him apart is his “bleeding” medical mannequins and his detailed hypothesis of Brinton’s personality.
His models “bleed” and reflect common injuries sustained in combat, he said.
“My goal is to share and show people how it really was. I’ve had people pass out, but it’s really more educational than theatrical. Decker said.
The painstakingly accurate demonstration of Decker’s living history is a Civil War field hospital with multiple operating tables on which wounded soldiers “lou”, “George,” “Fred” “Gus” and “Johnny” can be found. There are also 95 quirky medical tools, like a bone saw and a roll-up pocket kit.
As Brinton, he wears a long-sleeved white shirt, waistcoat, tie, and pants covered by his bloody white apron. If he is outside, he will wear his slouch hat with his medical logo. If indoors, such as in a lecture hall or classroom, the hat sits on his desk because it is inappropriate to wear a hat indoors, he said.
Decker incorporated into his depiction details beyond medical techniques, the result of hours and hours of research at the medical school where Brinton taught, as well as hours spent searching eBay for the appropriate equipment.
Dr. Brinton’s Field Hospital will be part of Colonel Murray’s Civil War Days, a two-day reenactment sponsored by Historic Hollidaysburg Inc.
Decker, 59, said he first became interested in Civil War history while dating his wife, Julie, who was a re-enactor. The couple attended events at Gettysburg. As their family grew, their two children would also replenish with them.
Brinton was not attached to any Union business, but instead served special assignments as director of the office of the Surgeon General, Decker said, and he served at Gettysburg.
Like Brinton, Decker is a freelance re-enactor and receives numerous event invitations across the East Coast.
A chance encounter with a re-enactor portraying General Grant earned Decker a promotion to captain and came with certificates for coaching.
Decker chose to portray Brinton because his medical prowess was well documented by historical surgical records. Brinton published his memoirs and taught post-war studies at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia.
These records helped Decker, who searched medical school records and found letters Brinton wrote from the battlefield to his mother.
The college archivist invited Decker to lecture sophomore medical students and give them historical perspective.
“A lot of people don’t know me as Doug Decker, they know me as Dr. Brinton,” he said. “It’s really nice when others know you for who you represent.”
He will often work on re-enactments with fellow Union surgeon reenactor Kevin Kuhn and Todd Craig, who portrays a Confederate surgeon.
“We work together to dispel many myths of Hollywood cinema, such as soldiers biting bullets, having a drink of whiskey before an amputation, etc. In the field, if a soldier had taken a bullet, 95% of the time it was removed under general anesthesia. Ether was discovered in 1842 and used by the North and the South,” Decker said.
Reenactors bust another myth – that a Union surgeon, like Brinton, wouldn’t treat a wounded Confederate soldier. That’s not true as demonstrated in his hospital, Decker said.
“Surgeons went free to treat Union and Confederate casualties. They were color blind and didn’t care what uniform you were wearing. … They were all in pain mostly, young people who just wanted to go home and c was our job, Decker said.
Another common misconception – that surgeons don’t wash their tools or hands.
“They were washing their tools” Decker said. “The blades are high carbon steel and the blood has the same salt content as the ocean. So they were washing their tools to protect them. And, they had to wash their hands, because there were so many blood. Your hands get slippery and you don’t want your fingers slipping when you cut,” Decker said handwashing was a practice. Surgical hygiene based on the science of germ theory would come a decade later.
“It really became a passion for me. I really love teaching people,” he said.