Railroads and First Aid

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Railroads and First Aid

D&RGW RR First Aid Demonstration - 1916 - Railroads and First Aid

D&RGW RR First Aid Demonstration – 1916
Image courtesy: Johnson & Johnson Archives

What do railroads have to do with first aid? Sure, like all of us, at work or at home there can be injuries and it’s nice to have some supplies on hand to deal with it, maybe even a proper First Aid Kit. So, like any responsible business a railroad would have first aid kits where they might be needed. Well, they do, but it turns out that, in the case of First Aid Kits, there’s a little more to the story. Back in 1888, a chance encounter with the company surgeon of an old west railroad led a heads-up business executive to have his company conceive, invent and make a practical commercial product of the First Aid Kit.

Rearranged, and edited, but about 95% from the Johnson and Johnson Our Story website.

Railroad construction during the 19th century brought workers to isolated regions in the American West, away from hospitals and traditional medical care. The First Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869 and in the decades that followed, expansion continued at a fever pitch. Between 1880 and 1890, more than 70,000 miles of new tracks were laid. The frenzied construction in rural, rugged areas across the American West ensured accidents were common and, when disaster struck, it was often fatal. About 12,000 railroad workers and operators died each year. Not only was the cutting-edge machinery creating new injuries, but medical care on the frontier was virtually nonexistent. Additionally, working on steam locomotives was so dangerous that trains began carrying surgeons, and later, medical cars for treatment. In the 1880s, along the 1,300-mile stretch between St. Louis, Missouri, and El Paso, Texas, there was not one hospital. So it’s no surprise that wounded workers frequently perished before help arrived.
To fill the desperate need for adequate emergency care, railroad companies began employing their own doctors. Since there was no textbook for the injuries they encountered, these physicians had to learn surgery on the job and improvise trauma care along the way. They creatively dealt with new injuries, among the most common was “crushed limbs.” These men were often champions of new technology—they were early champions of Joseph Lister’s sterile surgery. However, putting this theory into practice and keeping wounds germ-free proved challenging. Initially, few had operating rooms or antiseptic supplies.

DRGW RR Hospital in Salida, CO - 1885 - Railroads and First Aid

DRGW RR Hospital in Salida, CO – 1885
Salida Historical Society

Even after the railway surgeons convinced companies to build hospitals and sterile environments in the West, death tolls remained high. The missing links were educated first responders and antiseptic first aid supplies. On railroad construction sites, untrained laborers who knew little of basic hygiene, let alone wound care, were the first to take action when disaster struck. Naturally, they rushed to help, but their attempts often did more harm than good—exacerbating spinal injuries or introducing infection. Railroads of the time struggled alone with the problem and made some progress. Even so, in one month in 1887, 34 railroaders died in on-the-job accidents. A fraction more than one a day! In the entire year of 1888, 2,070 railroaders were killed on the job. Another 20,148 were injured. More than 400 U.S. railroads had laid nearly 165,000 miles of track by the early 1890’s.

Robert Wood Johnson - Railroads and First Aid

Robert Wood Johnson

Then, aboard a train heading to Colorado for vacation, Johnson and Johnson company founder Robert Wood Johnson struck up a conversation with the Denver & Rio Grande Railway’s chief surgeon. The doctor explained to Johnson the dangers of railroad construction and the lack of medical supplies to treat the unique industrial injuries that were often incurred great distances from hospitals.
When Johnson heard about this problem, he had the idea of packaging Johnson & Johnson’s sterile surgical products in boxes that could be kept with railway workers to treat injuries. Johnson wrote to top railway surgeons asking for their advice about what they needed in the kits. He then called upon Johnson & Johnson’s scientific director, Fred Kilmer, to translate these needs into a product. Kilmer was a practiced pharmacist and scientist whose meticulous research on railroad medicine gave rise to Johnson & Johnson’s inaugural First Aid Kit in 1888. Kilmer was a visionary in the field who saw the kits as a way to bridge the gap between injury and treatment. He understood the need not only for sterile supplies but also for the education of the public to ensure that injuries were treated—not intensified—in the first minutes.
The first kits were packed in durable wooden or metal boxes and equipped with a variety of existing Johnson & Johnson surgical products, including gauze, adhesive plasters, dressing, bandages, and sutures. Because they were tailored to the unique needs of railroad construction, they also necessitated the addition of new supplies. Originally, Johnson & Johnson manufactured First Aid Kits tailored to the unique needs of individual railroad companies.
However, Kilmer knew that the kits, themselves, were not enough. They needed to include explanation and training. Since its founding, Johnson & Johnson had prided itself on educating the public and spreading antiseptic methods of wound care; first aid was another teaching opportunity. In 1901, Johnson & Johnson published the Hand Book of First Aid, the nation’s first comprehensive, commercially available guide to first aid. The guide reached beyond the railroad and medical industries, teaching Americans about basic hygiene and emergency care. Through illustrations and common emergency scenarios, it showed readers how to use Johnson & Johnson products to save lives. But, this manual did more than educate; it spurred a movement. In the years that followed, similar guides proliferated…

Johnson had seen an opportunity to both advance the field of healthcare and build his young business. And from this modern need, the commercial First Aid Kit was born.

Rearranged, and edited, but about 95% from the Johnson and Johnson Our Story website.

for other information related to this subject on Old West Daily Reader
DictionaryJaney Coupler
DictionaryLink and Pin
Photo Gallery Index – Transportation – Railroads in the West

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