Monday, April 4, 2011

Medications in WWII: Part 1/3

I'm so pleased to have Sarah Sundin back this week. Her WWII research posts are always very popular. This week, she'll be focusing on medications used during WWII. Welcome back, Sarah!

Medications in World War II (Part 1)

Illness and injuries are a great way to build conflict and drama in your novel—but they’re hard on your characters. Be a nice author and learn how to treat them properly. In my World War II novels, A Distant Melody, A Memory Between Us and Blue Skies Tomorrow (coming August 2011), my characters suffer from pneumonia, combat injuries, and burns, plus the heroine in the second book was a nurse. Researching medical treatment of the time allows you to include accurate period details.

Today I’ll cover the basics of medication use during the war years, and then on April 6th and April 8th  I’ll review categories of medications available at the time.

Generic vs. Brand Name

Most medications have a generic name and a brand (or proprietary) name. The generic name is not capitalized, but the brand name is. For example, Seconal (brand) and secobarbital (generic), Pitressin (brand) and vasopressin (generic). Today many medications are available from the original manufacturer and from generic manufacturers, but before 1984, most medications were manufactured by a single company. Therefore, the issue of picking a cheaper generic over a pricier brand name didn’t exist in the 1940s.

Dosage Forms

By the 1940s, more and more medications were commercially produced as pre-made tablets, but pharmacists still compounded a large percentage of prescriptions from raw ingredients. Compounded prescriptions included cough syrups, elixirs, antiseptic solutions, capsules, suppositories, powder papers, powders, creams, and ointments.


Intravenous medications and fluids were used during the war years. However, our disposable, “Universal Precautions” age would seem foreign to the health care professional of the 1940s. Syringes and IV bottles were made of glass, and IV tubing and gloves out of rubber. Everything (even gloves) was cleansed and sterilized for re-use.


Today most doses are expressed in metric units (milligrams, milliliters, etc.). In the 1940s the metric system was used to a lesser extent, and the term “cc” (cubic centimeter) was preferred over “ml” (milliliter).

In the 1940s most medications were measured in apothecary units. Weight was measured in grains (abbreviated “gr” while gram is “g”), scruples, drams, ounces, and pounds. The apothecary ounce (31.3 g) is fairly close to the avoirdupois ounce (28.4 g). For comparison purposes, one grain is approximately 65 milligrams. Therefore a five-grain tablet of aspirin is equal to 325 mg.

Fluids in the apothecary system are measured in minims, fluidrams, fluidounces, pints, quarts, and gallons. The apothecary fluidounce equals 29.6 ml.


US Army Medical Department Office of Medical History. (Official site with full textbooks about military hospitals and medical treatment from 1775 to present).

WW2 US Medical Research Centre. (A large and thorough website containing lots of information about military medicine during World War II.)

Worthen, Dennis B. Pharmacy in World War II. New York: Pharmaceutical Products Press, 2004. (A comprehensive account of pharmacy practice in the military and on the home front.)


Sarah Sundin is the author of the Wings of Glory series from Revell: A Distant Melody (March 2010), A Memory Between Us (September 2010), and Blue Skies Tomorrow (August 2011). She has a doctorate in pharmacy from UC San Francisco and works on-call as a hospital pharmacist.


  1. Honestly, I think the lack of universal precautions is the scariest to me. I could not imagine cleaning disposable gloves to be used again.

  2. Jordyn - isn't that amazing? I saw a great picture in a book of nurses washing gloves and hanging them to dry - a clothesline full of rubber gloves!

  3. Oh my... as if nurses didn't have enough to do!