I had a question from one of my readers recently. She had read a book set in the Regency era, and, in it, an ambulance was called for to fetch a patient to a hospital. Naturally, she wanted to know if this was possible for the early 1800s.
The answer is both yes and no. Ambulances, of sorts, were available for battlefield injuries, but not for civilian cases. An ambulance was necessary on a battlefield because the fighting (and, therefore, the injuries) was often a mile or more from the actual tents set up as as a field hospital. Obviously, some form of “transportation” for the injured had been used for centuries. We are aware that men who fell in battle during the Crusades, which were fought between 1095 and 1291, were transported by horse-drawn wagons for treatment.
Some say, ambulances were first used for emergency transport in 1487 by the Spanish forces during the siege of Málaga by the Catholic monarchs against the Emirate of Granada, and civilian variants were put into operation in the 1830s.
“The modern ambulance—at least the horse-driven version—was cre-ated by Frenchman Dominique-Jean Larrey (1766-1842) in 1792. Larrey, Napoleon’s private surgeon, wanted to improve battlefield treatment of wounded soldiers. He designed a horse-drawn “flying ambulance” to carry surgeons and medical supplies onto the field of battle during the Rhine campaign of 1792.
“For the Italian campaign of 1794, Larrey used light ambulance carriages with stretchers to carry the wounded. In Egypt in 1799, local camels powered Larrey’s ambulances. With fellow surgeon Pierre Percy (1754-1825), Larrey formed a battalion of ambulance soldiers, including stretcher bearers and surgeons. Larrey’s ambulances and the swift medical attention they brought significantly boosted the morale of Napoleon’s troops.
“Ambulance service was expanded from the military to the civilian world in 1869 by Bellevue Hospital in New York City. The Larrey “flying ambulance” remained standard until the first motorized ambulances appeared around the turn of the century. These motorized vehicles were pioneered by the Panhard-Levassor partnership of France.” (Medical Discoveries)
In the city, they would retrieve a cart and take the injured to a person’s home for treatment. The only people who went to hospitals were the very, very VERY poor and only in the major cities. Everyone else was treated at home no matter what the injury. Also, a doctor would not be summoned. A surgeon would be summoned. Doctors only gave out medicine (more in the nature of what we now think of as a pharmacist). Surgeons were the ones who dealt with wounds, cuts, etc. ,anything which had to do with “getting dirty” or doing “work” on a patient.
Larrey was made a Commander of the Légion d’honneur on 12 May 1807. He joined in the Battle of Aspern-Essling, where he operated on Marshall Jean Lannes and amputated one of his legs in two minutes. He became the favorite of the Emperor, who commented, “If the army ever erects a monument to express its gratitude, it should do so in honor of Larrey”, he was ennobled as a Baron on the field of Wagram in 1809. In 1811, Baron Larrey co-led the surgical team that performed a pre-anesthetic mastectomy on Frances Burney in Paris. Her detailed account of this operation gives insight into early 19th century doctor-patient relationships, and early surgical methods in the home of the patient. Larrey was involved in the French invasion of Russia.
When Napoleon was sent to Elba, Larrey proposed to join him, but the former Emperor refused. At Waterloo in 1815 his courage under fire was noticed by the Duke of Wellington who ordered his soldiers not to fire in his direction so as to “give the brave man time to gather up the wounded” and saluted “the courage and devotion of an age that is no longer ours”. Trying to escape to the French border, Larrey was taken prisoner by the Prussians who wanted to execute him on the spot. Larrey was recognized by one of the German surgeons, who pleaded for his life. Perhaps partly because he had saved the life of Blücher’s son when he was wounded near Dresden and taken prisoner by the French, he was pardoned, invited to Blücher’s dinner table as a guest and sent back to France with money and proper clothes.