How a Leiden professor came to be a Waterloo hero
With his knowledge of medicine and his decisive action, Leiden professor Sebald Justinus Brugmans saved the lives of many wounded soldiers after the Battle of Waterloo, on 18 June 2015 exactly 200 years ago.
Sebald Justinus Brugmans (1763–1819) was a professor of botany, chemistry, medicine and natural history in Leiden, but in addition to his work there, he was also head of the military medical service. He had noticed that in a hospital, gangrene could quickly spread from one wounded soldier to another and that this infectious, fatal disease could best be countered with hygienic measures such as ventilation, placing beds sufficiently far away from each other, isolating infected patients and disinfecting rooms and mattresses. In 1814 he had written an award-winning essay on this “hospital death” phenomenon.
With their allied armies, the Duke of Wellington and Marshal Blücher defeated Napoleon’s French troops at Waterloo (south of Brussels) on 18 June 1815. The bloody fighting lasted almost ten hours. By evening the battlefield was strewn with the bodies of forty thousand dead and wounded soldiers and ten thousand horses.
As inspector general, Brugmans received on that very 18 June the order to set off for Brussels and organise the care for the soldiers there. He reached Brussels the day after the battle, together with many thousands of wounded—Prussian, English and Dutch soldiers, as well as French prisoners of war—who were arriving from the battlefield and were put up not only in hospitals, barracks and churches, but also in private homes.
So many wounded packed in so close together posed a tremendous risk of an outbreak of gangrene and other epidemics. But Brugmans was able to adequately organise the emergency aid within just a few days. He collected and instructed the available doctors, surgeons and medical students, who then went through the city each day, organised in divisions, to care for the wounded. Furthermore, the soldiers were spread out as quickly as possible: the heavily wounded remained in Brussels, but in well ventilated places, while the less seriously injured were transported to towns in the surrounding area.
Brugmans was awarded many decorations in appreciation for his decisive action. He was presented with the Order of the Dutch Lion by King Willem I, the Order of Saint Anna by the Russian czar and the Order of the Red Eagle by the king of Prussia. Would you to look him in the eye? His portrait with the royal orders can still be seen in our Academy Building.
(18 June 2015- André Bouwman/LvP)
Waterloo in the University Library collections (selection):