With overworked NHS ambulance crews enduring 15-hour shifts and ambulances in Wales now restricted to attending three types of emergency (choking, cardiac arrest and pregnancy), we have explored the role of the ambulance throughout history.
It might seem impossible for us to believe with our modern day reliance on ambulance services, but it wasn’t so long ago that doctors still came and visited their patients at home.
Medical transportation methods have been around since ancient times, however they haven’t always been that that fast. The concept of the ambulance first came about on the battlefield, as a means of removing injured soldiers from the line of fire. Chariots were used by the early Greeks and the Romans to move wounded away from more danger, however, in the 9th Century the less effective method of hammocks suspended between two wagons was introduced. The safe transport of an invalid passenger relied on both hammocks keeping the same slow, steady pace, especially down hills and around corners. The horse litter, devised in the 11th Century, used a similarly ineffective method.
The word ‘ambulance’ was first coined in the 14th Century from the Latin word ‘ambulare’ – ‘to move about’. These early ambulances were first used in Spain and were not transport methods, but medical tents that could be erected a safe distance away from the fighting. Solders would not have be transported to these ‘pop-up’ field hospitals until after a battle, which could last several days.
It was not until Dominique Jean Larrey, the famous French Napoleonic military surgeon, that the ambulance (in cart form) was used as fast and effective way of saving army lives. Larrey realised that men stood a better chance of survival if they received medical attention immediately. Another great advancement in the development of the ambulance came with the work of Jonathan Letterman, who came up with the notion of the army doctor or field medic during the American Civil War, and created the U.S. Ambulance Corps act.
It was former military servicemen that fought for an extension of the military ambulance service to serve a public need. This service ultimately replaced the doctor who made house calls with his little black bag. In 1895, Cincinati, Ohio was the first city to a hospital-based ambulance service.
Future Oxbridge Historians might gain from exploring the history of Medicine and medical practices. ‘Wannabe’ Medics could benefit from exploring if our health service is now regressing and how the NHS will be impacted by a severely reduced ambulance service.