If Ronald Gibbs, MD, could step into an alternate timeline, he would trade his research and teaching in obstetrics and gynecology at Stanford Medicine to become a historian specializing in 18th century American history.
It wouldn't be much of a leap. He has read extensively on the Revolutionary War, researched its grisly medical technology and collected maps from the period.
Gibbs talked with me about his affinity for this era of American history and his new self-published novel, The Long Shot: The Secret History of 1776. The book is set in an alternate reality in which Gen. George Washington is shot in the chest, sustaining a potentially fatal wound early in the Revolutionary War.
Which came first, your interest in history or your interest in medicine?
Oh, I suppose my interest in history -- I grew up in Philadelphia, the center of early American history -- and then along came my interest in medicine when I was an undergraduate. The two interests converged when I was in medical school. I won a history of medicine prize and got to go to London one summer to study medicine of the American Revolution, as seen from the British viewpoint. A number of the treatments and techniques stayed with me all these years, and I incorporated them into my book.
What was medical technology like during the Revolutionary War?
Theories were not terribly advanced from those of ancient times. The thoughts were that disease was caused by an imbalance of bodily fluids, called "humours," and that to restore health, physicians needed to restore the balance of those fluids. If you were ill, you were bled or purged. It wasn't until the middle of the 19th century that modern medicine really caught hold, and these ancient treatments, which turned out to be harmful, were abandoned.
Also, surgical operations were limited to amputations and treatment of wounds. If you were unfortunate enough to suffer head trauma, the process of trephining, or opening of the skull, was used. Any wound of the abdomen or chest was ordinarily considered fatal. And the whole science of microbiology was way, way off in the future. So, infection was a major cause of death following surgery or wounds.
A particular injury features prominently in your new novel. Can you tell me more about it?
It's an alternative history novel that asks, "What if, during the early, precarious days of the American Revolution, Gen. George Washington got shot?"
It's a plausible theme because Washington was thrilled by battle and often led from the front. On Sunday morning, Sept. 15, 1776, the British Army had just attacked Manhattan in their campaign to capture New York City. Washington charged down from his headquarters in northern Manhattan to the battlefield. He tried to rally the men, but they were too panicked. British Rangers were closely approaching Washington. As history tells it, Washington was in danger, but his aides got him safely off the field of battle.
In my novel, two British Rangers see an American general across the field. They know it's a long shot, but they fire their muskets, and a musket ball hits Washington in the chest. By a providential twist of fate, just arriving in the American camp is the hero. Dr. Alexander Grant is a fictitious surgeon from the Medical College of Philadelphia -- the forerunner of my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania -- and he operates on Washington using techniques far advanced for the time.
The novel has a lot of detail about medical and surgical care, and about cartography. Then I've thrown in a theme of spies and treason because they were such a rich part of how the war was carried out.
What was it like to write a novel?
This was really the intellectual thrill of my life -- to enter an area that I wasn't formally trained in and weave this plot, combining true characters and events with those from my imagination. I just absolutely loved it, and it was a great thrill to see the book in print.
Images courtesy of Ronald Gibbs