When we hear “bite the bullet,” it’s easy to envision the scene: a Civil War soldier on an operating table, a bullet in his mouth in order to take his mind off of the horrendous pain.
As superintendent of the Pry House Field Hospital Museum at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Maryland, Tom Frezza ’08 has the opportunity to let visitors know that Civil War soldiers were not biting down on any bullets.
“When visitors come to tour the Pry House, I start by asking them to forget everything they think they know about how soldiers coped with pain during the Civil War,” said Frezza. “People assume that there were no medications at that time for pain, but I remind them that chloroform and ether were being used 30 years before the Civil War even began, and that surgeons had ample supply in 1861.
Given that a bullet is about the size of a human’s windpipe, biting down on one with the risk of it being swallowed would not have been a prudent method of distraction.
“The bottom line is that Civil War medicine is not as bad as Hollywood makes it out to be,” said Frezza.
The Pry House is part of the National Park Service and during the Civil War served as headquarters for both Union Commander General George B. McClellan as well as Medical Director Dr. Jonathan Letterman. Located on the site of the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest one-day battle in American history, the Pry House is considered the birthplace of military and emergency medicine. On September 17, 1862, 23,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing after 12 hours of savage combat. This battle ended the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia’s first invasion into the north, which led to the issuance of Abraham Lincoln’s preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.
Frezza has a long-standing interest in history and has been able to parlay that interest into a career. He considers running the Pry House as more of an historical adventure than a job and spends time researching facts and timelines, coordinating displays of 150-year-old medical artifacts, and educating the public on what medicine really looked like during the Civil War. He also gets to surprise visitors with medical facts such as the fact that amputation techniques used by doctors today are largely the same as those used over 150 years ago.
“I am fortunate that my interest in history, medicine, and the Civil War have paralleled with my career path, and that I can share what I am passionate about with others,” said Frezza. “My job involves museum tours and sign interpretation, setting up museum logistics and operations, and curating objects for display that give a tangible sense of our connection to the past. For me, the best part is knowing that Pry House visitors care about making those historical connections as much as I do.”
Exhibits in the Pry House include a recreation of an operating theater, objects relating to the care of the wounded, the history of the Pry House and the family, and information on the revolutionary system of evacuation of the wounded created by Dr. Letterman during the Civil War which is still being used by the military today.
Frezza credits his interest in interpretation and turning that passion into a career to the classes he took at Unity College.
“When people ask where I got my bachelor’s degree, I am proud to say ‘Unity College,’” said Frezza. “My major was Parks and Recreation/Ecotourism, and the courses taught by Professor Tom Mullin not only inspired me, but ultimately lead me to my career with the National Park Service.”