Wednesday, June 23, 2021



Dr Keith Souter aka Clay More

I was researching about the Chisolm chloroform inhaler recently ( as a Scottish doctor I feel compelled to use our way of spelling) when I went off on one of those distracting tangents that  make research so much fun. So in this blog I am going to talk about the Wind of the Ball Theory postulated in the early very early nineteenth century to account for unexplained deaths on the battlefield. They were attributed to the wind of the passing cannonball and the mysterious force it had to kill without necessarily producing signs of impact or injury.

But first a biographette and a thumbnail description of his great invention.

Dr Julian John Chisolm (1830-1903)
Julian John Chisolm, often referred to as John Julian Chisolm or as J.J. Chisolm was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1830. He obtained his MD medical degree from the Medical College of South Carolina in 1850 then travelled to Europe to study medicine and surgery in Paris and London.

He returned to Charleston in 1860 and took up the post of Professor of Surgery at the Medical College. He  kept the position throughout the War and in 1861 published the first edition of his textbook A Manual of Military Surgery for the Use of Surgeons in the Confederate States Army.

He was one of the few competent surgeons at the start of the War (it was the steepest of learning curves for surgeons on both sides), but his book gave detailed instructions. His experience was based on personal observations of many wounds  treated in both civilian and military hospitals admitted form the battlefields of Europe. The book was updated twice during the War.

The Chisolm Inhaler
During the war chloroform took over from ether as the anaesthetic of choice. It was administered by using a piece of cloth, which was fashioned into a cone, onto which the chloroform was administered. This was found to be wasteful, since much of the chloroform evaporated. Hence it was unscientifically and crudely given and could also affect anyone see in the enclosed space used as an operating theatre. In a field hospital that may have been a tent.

With the Union Naval blockade the supplies of chloroform were drastically reduced. Stimulated by that, and by the wasteful and hazardous way it was traditionally given he invented  his inhaler. It consisted of a flattened cylinder, measuring 2.5  by one inch, with two tubes which could be inserted into the nostrils. The chloroform was dripped into a perforated disc onto a cloth inside the inhaler. It reduced the amount needed to a mere ten per cent.

It was not until the latter stages of the war that he invented this ingenious device, and he invented it because of necessity. 

But as I said, while reading his Manual of Surgery I came this fascinating offshoot.

The Wind of the Ball Theory

Ever since men went to war with guns military surgeons had reported of deaths on the battlefields with no apparent cause. No wounds visible, yet internally sometimes catastrophic damage. Such things are mentioned in medical writings in  the sixteenth century. 

A Doctor D Ellis wrote a paper about this in the Edinburgh Medical Journal of 1812 entitled Observations on the nature and cause of certain accidents which sometimes occur in battle, and have been usually ascribed to the 'wind of a ball.' 

This wind of the ball, was thought to be the wind that accompanied the flight of a cannonball, but which came to be associated with musket balls and the Minie ball. 

Ellis wrote about delayed death of a soldier, that he had witnessed firsthand. 

"A shot passed above the head of a man who should have been with his comrades in a trench. The surgeon examined him immediately, but found no injury. From the state of the pulse, however, the surgeon deemed it necessary to send the man to the hospital, and although no external injury could be discovered, the man died in less than 48 hours after the accident."

He goes on to describe another case.

"Another delayed death occurred when the victim of a minor wound "died a few days, not, as was conceived, from the effects of the injury done to the arm, but from the '"wind of the ball.""

Such deaths the military officials and the medical authorities attributed to the wind of the cannonball.

A French surgeon, Felix Larrey, who was a military surgeon and physician to Napoleon lll postulated that the phenomenon was due to the physics of the cannonball motion, which he described as travelling first by rectilinear movement and then by curvilinear motion. By this it seems he was trying to describe the falling of the cannonball towards the end of its trajectory. He used this to try to account for the lack of external damage to the human body by postulating that as the velocity diminished as it neared the ground, its curvilinear motion, by which he meant its rotation, would cause it to roll around the body without leaving a mark. This he equated with the way a wheel would pass over a limb or body, instead of forcing a way through it. 

Felix Larrey (1808-1895)

Ellis was not convinced by this and could not imagine that a cannonball other projectile could move so slowly around the body, leaving no mark, yet still caused death. He did not accept Feix Larrey's physics. instead, he said:

"these accidents appear altogether different from those produced by the operation of ordinary mechanical agents; and bear, in all their circumstances, a much nearer resemblance to th effects of...the action of atmospheric electricity."

This theory did not last long, however, and it was supplanted by that of another by Doctor P Forbes, also writing in the Edinburgh Medical Journal of 1812. He proposed that it was not wind at all, but a vacuum that was created by the passage of the cannonball. This would suck the air from the body, and also produce its effect:

"The consequences of which is a sudden expansion of all the fluids in the stomach and the blood in the blood vessels, and the rupture of both."

Not wind, but a vaccuum?

Well, let  me now show you what Doctor Chisolm had to say.

"Cases not unusually occur on the battlefield in which the abdominal contents might be severely crushed without apparent external injury. It is the toughness and elasticity of the skin which gives rise to the exploded theory of the wind of a ball destroying life: and such cases as those we are now considering were formerly brought forward as instances of the fatal effects of the vacuum following the wake of a cannonball. 

Observation has shown that a knapsack might be torn from the back, a hair struck from the head, an epaulet from the shoulder, or a pipe from the mouth, without leaving a trace of injury; while on the other hand, viscera might be reduced to a jelly, or bones crushed, without a visible bruising of the skin. It is the ball itself, and not the wind, which produces these disorganisations. from the blow of a spent cannonball or fragment of a shell the liver might be lacerated, intestines torn, blood vessels opened, spleen fissured, or kidney ruptured, without an external wound. Severe shock and collapse mark the extent of injury received' and should the patient rally fro this condition, which is rare, violent inflammation will soon destroy life. Although we follow vigorously the treatment laid down above, we very seldom have the satisfaction of saving the patient."

He gives a clinical case of a Sergeant who sustained such an injury at the Bombardment of Battery Wagner, but I will spare you the actual details, part from to say that they illustrate the catastrophic internal injuries that can occur despite no external wounding. 

Spent balls

Chisolm then goes on:

"The amount of destruction effected by a spent ball is often surprising. the uninitiated on the battlefield will attempt to stop, with the foot, a cannonball rolling on the ground, and which is just about exhausting its force, perhaps with only momentum sufficient to carry it one or two feet further, yet it crushes the limb put out to oppose it. Baudens, in warning persons to avoid cannonballs, however slowly they may be rolling, mentions the case of a grenadier of the guard, sleeping on his side on the ground, who was instantly killed by a spent cannonball, the blow from which lactated the vertebral column. The ball came with so little momentum that it rilled itself up in the hood of the soldier's overcoat, where it was found. It was just about to stop when it struck. One or two feet further, and its entire force would have been exhausted."

Lucien Jean-Baptiste Baurens (1804-1857) was a French military surgeon, who was himself a staunch advocate of chloroform. 



  1. Fascinating as usual. I always enjoy reading your post and learn so much. Thank you for your continued sharing of knowledge. Doris

  2. Thanks, Doris. As you know, when researching history you start out on one line and then go off on another route when you get distracted by an interesting snippet.

  3. Makes one wonder about the impact of a meteor on Earth and the ensuing deaths. Hmm. Always great info, Dr. K!

  4. Thank you, Meg. Chisolm's Manual of Military Surgery makes interesting reading. He actually writes that "...the common impression that surgeons alone are wanted in the army, under the erroneous belief that the only risks to which troops are exposed are the bullets of the enemy. As we have elsewhere shown that for one killed by the enemy at least eight die of disease contracted in camp, this will be sufficient proof that the physician must be even more important than the surgeon."

  5. Replies
    1. Thank you, Vicky. I find these old textbooks so interesting. Those were the days when doctors and surgeons depended solely on their clinical acumen in picking up clinical signs. No x-rays, scans, and even thermometers and stethoscopes were in short supply.

  6. Super interesting stuff! It's fascinating to see the various theories proposed for the men's deaths.

    1. Thank you Xina Uhl. I would be interested to know how many deaths were attributed to this. I think they were classified under Other Accidents and Injuries, of which there were many.

  7. I wouldn't have thought an almost spent cannon ball could kill. Thanks for educating us even more on the history of medicine. Your posts are always so interesting.

    1. Thanks, Livia. I know what you mean about the almost spent balls, but that seemed to be Chisolm's perception, presumably also his observation.

      We have a cannonball that was excavated from Sandal Castle, and which is a relic of the English Civil War. Having rolled it and then tried to stop it I can say that it would not be something to take lightly.

      I rather liked his use of the description of '...the uninitiated on the battlefield...' as if it was like stopping a rolling ball in soccer. The language that was used in textbooks and papers in those days was very different from those of today.

  8. A fascinating story, Keith. I enjoy your posts very much. Any chance that Dr. Chisolm's book is in print - or at least available online?

    1. Thanks, Michael. Yes, it is available as a print reproduction and it is in the public domain, and you can get it from Amazon. Or look on Google books and type in the title and author and you'll get a preview and click on 'get the book' which will give you a list of sellers. You'll also find a list of the Civil War Surgery series, too.

  9. I'm late to the party, but just wanted to say how much I enjoyed this post (as always) and what an eye-opener! So many weird deaths--my husband Gary told me when he was in the Navy, a guy accidentally shot himself in the heel and died of shock. I think "the wind of the ball" theory is just fascinating.

    1. Thanks, Cheryl. Reading Civil War accounts of the types of injuries and the treatment of them is interesting. Chisolm also talks about deaths, such as the one that Gary told you about, following wounds that should not have been fatal.

      When dealing with abdominal and pelvic wounds he talks about the relative infrequent damage to the bladder that he observed, because with the nervous anticipation of battle men frequently relieved themselves, hence their bladders were not distended and the organ becomes much harder to hit.