Healing Through the Times: The History of Wound Care
By Neeru Nagarajan
The history of healing and caring for wounds is intertwined with human history. From prehistoric times to now, humans have been hurt, bled, and had infections. For World First Aid Day celebrated every year on 12th September, we look at how wound care and bandaging have evolved throughout history.
In most cases, nature is capable of healing our wounds in time. However, humans have always tried to speed up the process. And sometimes, the quicker we intervene, the better. Immediately attending to a cut, fracture, burn with the right procedure is crucial to ensuring that the damage isn’t permanent, and healing begins. One of the most common wound care methods is bandaging — and it’s not as modern as you might think.
The history of bandages
An old medical manuscript from 2200 BC is a clay tablet that describes “three healing gestures”: washing the wounds, making the plasters, and bandaging the wound. Sounds familiar?
Bandaging was common in many cultures, including Greek, Indian, Roman, Mesopotamian civilizations. In Egypt, too, bandaging was a regular practice; their well-developed mummification processes prove that the Egyptians had sophisticated bandages. But most notably, Egyptians seemed to possess the knowledge that closed wounds heal faster than open ones. They were the first ones to invent adhesive bandages (the predecessor to the modern band-aid). They applied gum to linen strips and used them to draw wound edges together.
Picture of Achilles Bandaging Patroklos, a vase by Sosias, from around 500 BC
A century of BAND-AID
To give you some perspective: The brand BAND-AID is a hundred years old!
In 1920, Earle E. Dickson, a cotton buyer for Johnson & Johnson, invented the first adhesive bandage. His accident-prone wife, Josephine, suffered very often from minor cuts and burns in her everyday cooking. Having to frequently make bandages for her with surgical tape and gauze, Dickson was beginning to find the process cumbersome. He wished that there was a readymade bandage that Josephine could administer herself.
Thus, the idea for Band-Aid was born from Dickson’s need for something readymade, simple, and easy to use.
Dickson took this idea to Johnson & Johnson, and they manufactured his design. The first Band-Aid was a strip measuring 18” by 2 ½”. It was made of a surgical tape with a bit of padded gauze in the middle — both products that Johnson & Johnson was already manufacturing.
Until the invention of the first adhesive bandage, people were using whatever scraps of cloth they could find to wrap their minor cuts. With the rising awareness surrounding hygiene and the mass production of band-aids making them affordable and accessible, people were eager to buy these bandages. Band-Aids helped them take care of their minor cuts, scrapes, and burns without going to a doctor. The use of Band-Aids became prevalent so quickly that the brand has become a generic term for adhesive bandages and is now a household name.
One of the first advertisements for Band-Aid, 1921
The future of bandages
Since the invention of Band-Aid, the product has come a long way. Just this year, Band-Aid released its first line of diverse bandages in the US.
So, what could be next for bandages?
Sameer Sonkusale, an engineer at Tufts University, is now working on a smart bandage that could actively monitor and even deliver antibiotics and treatments to wounds. They will also keep the patient and their doctor informed about progress or deterioration. With flexible sensors that can wrap around the wound but also track infection and inflammation and sophisticated microprocessors that can process all this information, these smart bandages will pack a powerful punch that can do more than healing.
The future is now — the first smart bandage might be here soon.
One might think that a well-established product like Band-Aid would need no further improvement, but Sonkusale has still found a way to take it one level further.
The long journey of bandages shows us that learning from history, seeing the opportunity in crisis, and innovation are all valuable traits that everyone needs to succeed. We’re sure that the next time you see a band-aid, you’ll remember the rich history behind it, just like we will!
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About the Author
A recent MFA Creative Writing graduate, Neeru Nagarajan writes fiction, tech stuff, the occasional poetry, and lengthy Twitter threads (@poonaikaari). She loves cats and reality TV surrounding food.