As it turns out, the phrase “bite the bullet” had real meaning to soldiers wounded on the battlefield. Doctors in the 18th century treated patients without any form of anesthetics and with no knowledge of the importance of hygiene. Biting on a bullet, as demonstrated by Michael Williams, a colonial surgeon reenactor at Wormsloe Plantation was what soldiers did to withstand the pain of treatment. Williams displays various surgical instruments and “demonstrates” on students how treatments of amputation, bleeding, and even cutting holes in the skull (trepanning) were used to treat injuries. Although we may cringe at the sight of the surgeon’s crude instruments, colonial doctors who used them actually saved many lives.
Teacher tip: Ask students to respond and comment on the medical treatment of colonial doctors and to discuss some of the differences in medical procedures today.