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Just Imagine…Stepping Forward with Innovation

Dr. Jonathan Letterman

In 1824 Jonathan Letterman was born in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania as the son of a surgeon. Perhaps he was destined to have a medical career. When he graduated from medical school, he took a position with the Army as an Assistant Surgeon.

During most of his early career with the Army, he was involved in campaigns against Native Americans. When the Civil War started, he became the medical director of the Army of the Potomac. He was told to do whatever it takes to improve medical care for soldiers. What he found was appalling.

In a short period of time, Dr. Letterman brought about the following innovations:

  • Triage practices for the wounded
  • First aid stations close to the battlefields
  • Standard operating practices for the treatment of soldiers
  • A system for the distribution of medical supplies
  • A transport system for wounded soldiers.

Letterman’s innovations quickly proved successful. An Act of Congress made his innovations the standard practice for the Army. In the Peninsula campaign of 1862, prior to Letterman’s innovations, the mortality rate averaged 33%. After his innovations, by comparison, the mortality rate at the Battle of Gettysburg dropped to 2%.

Another innovation of Letterman was the treatment of wounded soldiers left behind after the battle was over. He created a medical encampment to treat soldiers from both sides. He was also able to secure support for the treatment after the battles were over.

Letterman’s innovations became the forerunner of the Geneva Convention, which covers the treatment of combatants worldwide. Letterman never saw the worldwide acceptance of his innovations. He passed away in 1872 at the age of 47.

Many innovations in retrospect seem obvious. Why didn’t anyone think of the changes Letterman brought about during earlier military conflicts? Is it because people just didn’t care? Could it be that the status quo is so powerful that it’s hard for us to see it as a problem? Could it be from a failure of courage to challenge current practices?

Just imagine how many issues we face as a society that have a need for an innovator to step forward. Where are the innovators? Are they just not available, or are they intimidated by the criticism they are likely to face? What might we do as a society to be more accepting and encouraging of innovators—including those with the courage to challenge the status quo?

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“Initiative is doing the right thing without being told.”– Victor Hugo (Author)


This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.