Loss of life during World War II was tremendous – millions of people – including civilians – perished in the violence. Creation of new weapons and the sheer scale of the conflict essentially forced medical science and technology to play a game of catch-up. Brian J Ford, British research biologist, author, and TV personality, stated:
"If any good can be said to come of war, then the Second World War must go on record as assisting and accelerating one of the greatest blessings that the 20th Century has conferred on Man — the huge advances in medical knowledge and surgical techniques. War, by producing so many and such appalling casualties, and by creating such widespread conditions in which disease can flourish, confronted the medical profession with an enormous challenge — and the doctors of the world rose to the challenge of the last war magnificently."
Disease and famine is estimated to had claimed from 19 to 25 million civilian lives. Infection was as serious as bombs and bullets – and although advances in treating diseases were made pre-war, the search for an effective way to curb infections hit a major milestone in 1940s.
Although penicillin was discovered before the war, it entered successful mass production first as a drug for allied troops. Scientists discovered that it a fungi was capable of attacking bacteria, harmful for the human body, but was safe for consumption. After a worldwide search for the best strain of this fungi, in 1943, a moldy cantaloupe from Illinois was found to contain the most effective and highest-quality penicillin. Under the supervision of The American War Production Board, over 646 billion units of penicillin per year were being produced by June 1945. After the war, the drug soon became available for civilian use – and since then it has been used both as a stand-alone medicine and a base for further research.
Another major problem tackled by war-time medicine science was malaria. American troops had problems with this disease both abroad and at home. As the command could not afford to lose troops to malaria on top of enemy fire, intensive malaria research programs were developed and quickly implemented. There is even a book called The Malaria Project: The U.S. Government's Secret Mission to Find a Miracle Cure. The author, Karen Masterson, explained to NBC how soldiers were used wittingly and unwittingly as test subjects:
In North Africa, the Allies… get this magic formula, stealing it from the Germans,” Masterson said. It’s sent back to The Malaria Project and developed into a chloroquine, a safe drug, which went on to save more lives than any other drug in history. This project brought us out of the dark ages on malaria. We knew so little about malaria as a parasite because you couldn’t grow it in cultures. You needed infected people.”
This drug was introduced into clinical practice in 1947 as prophylactic treatment of malaria.
Another notable medical advance is a little less straightforward – tank engineers first used ultrasound to detect cracks in armor, but now the technology has become a common occurrence in medical practice.