Friday, April 8, 2011

Medications in WWII: Part 3/3

Today is Sarah's final post on medications used during WWII. I think this has been a fantastic overview for any historical writer. Thank you, Sarah, for all your hard work.

Medications in World War II (Part 3)

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 allowed me to include accurate period details.

On April 4th  I covered the basics of medication use during the war years, and then on April 6th and today I’m reviewing categories of medications available at the time.

Infectious Disease

During World War II, the death rate among the wounded who made it to field hospitals was significantly lower than in earlier wars, due to the availability of plasma and antibiotics.

Sulfa Antibiotics

Sulfa medications were introduced in the 1930s. Those available during the war included sulfanilamide, sulfaguanidine, sulfadiazine, sulfathiazole, and sulfapyridine. Sulfas were used to treat pneumonia, dysentery, infected wounds, gonorrhea, and other infections. All soldiers carried a first aid kit containing twelve tablets of sulfanilamide as well as sulfanilamide powder. If wounded, the soldier poured the powder directly onto the wound and started taking the tablets. This reduced the rate of wound infection significantly.


PCN WWII Advertisement. (Credit: Schenley Laboratories, Inc., Lawrenceburg, Indiana)

Penicillin was discovered by accident in 1928 by Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming, but scant attention was paid to this discovery. In 1940, scientists isolated the compound, and on May 1, 1941, the discovery of a wondrous new antibiotic was announced. However, the complicated manufacturing process slowed production.

Penicillin was first tested in military hospitals in North Africa in April 1943 by Fleming himself, and experiments expanded to soldiers hospitalized in England in May 1943. On November 25, 1943, a new manufacturing process was announced. By December 1943, penicillin was available to Allied soldiers for life-threatening, sulfa-resistant infections, and by April 1944 was widely available in military hospitals. Civilian hospitals began to receive it in May 1944, and a new oral formulation was available in civilian pharmacies in August 1945.

Penicillin was used for a variety of infections, such as pneumonia, wound or surgical infections, and gonorrhea and syphilis.


Quinine was the drug of choice for prevention and treatment of malaria. However, the Japanese conquered the countries where quinine was produced. The US military requisitioned most of the civilian supply, but it wasn’t enough. Atabrine, a synthetic substitute, was used by the millions of military men and women serving in the Pacific or Mediterranean Theaters. Atabrine produced unpleasant side effects, including diarrhea—and it tended to turn the skin yellow. Quinine was reserved for treatment of patients who could not tolerate atabrine.

Other Antibiotics

Before penicillin was available, syphilis was treated with mapharsen or with sobisminol. Amebic infections were treated with carbarsone or chiniofon, and worm infections with arecoline, hexylresorcinol, or Santorin. A new class of antibiotics was introduced in May 1945 when streptomycin came to the market.


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. Hey Jordyn! I've been away from yoru blog for a while--things have been crazy--but now I hope I will be able to stop by frequently!

    Sarah, I always love hearing about the medical field during this war. Makes me *almost* want write in this time period, but I have enough on my plate for now. :-) I have your first two books in the series currently in my TBR pile, and I hope to get to them soon! :-D

    ~ Katy

  2. Katy, so nice to have you back!!

    Sarah's done such a great job with this series. I know I learned a lot!

  3. Katy - thanks for your comments! I hope you enjoy the books!
    Jordyn - thanks :)