Advancement of Medical Technology during World War II

Guiding Question:

How has warfare driven the advancement of medical technology? How do medical personnel decide on the best treatment for wounds sustained during combat? How are medics affected by their combat experiences?


These lessons are student-centered activities where students will explore medical technological advancements made during World War II and the vital role that medics played in the application of this technology. Students will examine a variety of sources in order to produce an informational artifact highlighting the importance of several medical advancements made during World War II. They will also use sources to determine the best method of implementing combat aid for a variety of injuries and will play the role of a combat medic to determine the best method for wound treatment and triage. Finally, students will gain an understanding of the unique perspective that combat medics had during their service by generating a news story featuring accounts of combat medics.


Historical Context

Throughout history, the exigencies of war have advanced medical technology in order to save the lives of combatants. Many medical techniques and interventions that we take for granted today were developed and employed during war. As military technology advanced, medicine had to advance in order to keep pace with new types of wounds. Medical resources developed during this time were utilized to treat a wide variety of combat injuries. Medics were the ones who had to employ these resources and often had to make very quick decisions and disregard their own safety in order to save lives. Combat medics saw the carnage of the war unlike many other soldiers in order to effectively distribute medical aid to treat injuries and save lives. Private First Class James Vrtatko, a medic, died as a Prisoner of War of the Germans after being captured when his field hospital was overrun outside of Bastogne, France. He was later identified and buried at Ardennes American Cemetery, along with more than 5,000 of his comrades in arms.


At the conclusion of this lesson, students will be able to

  • Research and summarize medical technologies developed during World War II in order to create a poster or brochure; and
  • Apply their scientific knowledge of battlefield wound treatment in order to evaluate how to best administer aid to soldiers suffering various combat wounds and reflect on how this experience may impact an individual’s life.

Standards Connections

Connections to Common Core
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., quantitative data, video, multimedia) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.11-12.9 Synthesize information from a range of sources (e.g., texts, experiments, simulations) into a coherent understanding of a process, phenomenon, or concept, resolving conflicting information when possible.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.11-12.8 Gather relevant information from multiple authoritative print and digital sources, using advanced searches effectively; assess the strengths and limitations of each source in terms of the specific task, purpose, and audience; integrate information into the text selectively to maintain the flow of ideas, avoiding plagiarism and overreliance on any one source and following a standard format for citation.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.11-12.9 Draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.2 Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

Connections to C3 Framework
D1.5.9-12 Determine the kinds of sources that will be helpful in answering compelling and supporting questions, taking into consideration multiple points of view represented in the sources, the types of sources available, and the potential uses of the sources.
D2.His.1.9-12 Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.
D2.His.16.9-12 Integrate evidence from multiple relevant historical sources and interpretations into a reasoned argument about the past.
D3.1.9-12 Gather relevant information from multiple sources representing a wide range of views while using the origin, authority, structure, context, and corroborative value of the sources to guide the selection.


Activity One

  • Whiteboard/chart paper for each student group

Activity Two

Activity Three

Activity Four


Lesson Preparation

Activity One

  • Obtain chart paper or divide sections of a whiteboard for each student group.

Activity Two

Activity Three

  • Gather student materials needed to create brochure, poster, newscast, etc.

Activity Four



Activity One (15 minutes)

  • Quick Write: Ask students to use their prior knowledge to identify or predict medical techniques or interventions used during World War II.
  • Use the following questions as a guide for student discussion:
    • What medical interventions were available during the World War II?
    • How were wounds treated?
    • What instruments or facilities were available?
    • What drugs or medications were available to treat disease?
    • What technology and surgical techniques were available to physicians?

Activity Two (15-30 minutes)

  • Hand out one Poster Analysis Worksheet to each student and divide students into groups of three to four students each.
  • Distribute (on paper or electronically) the Thanks to Penicillin … He Will Come Home poster to each group of students.
  • Ask students to use the poster to complete the Poster Analysis Worksheet.
    • Monitor student progress on the completion of the worksheet by asking clarifying questions and guiding the students to both make predictions and generate questions based on the poster.
    • Share analysis, generated questions, and observations with the class.
  • Show the video clip Penicillin: Invention of War from HISTORY® and summarize how warfare drove the invention and production of penicillin as a pharmaceutical drug.

Activity Three (90-120 minutes)

  • Assign students to design and produce a brochure, poster, newscast, or webpage, with a group of four that informs and delivers accurate, engaging information to other students about the medical advancements that were made during World War II.
  • Review and demonstrate appropriate internet research strategies to access reliable sources and research information about four medical technological advancements during this time period.
  • Groups will choose four from the following list of possible topics:
    • penicillin;
    • blood plasma/transfusion technology;
    • surgical techniques;
    • vaccination;
    • battlefield wound care;
    • malaria treatment; or
    • anesthetics.
  • Remind students to address the following questions as they explore these medical advancements:
    • Where was the country of origin for the technology/advancement? Was there equal access by both the Allies and the Axis powers?
    • When was it developed? When was it first used in military application?
    • What was the science behind the technology? How did it work? What made it different from or improve upon other technology present at the time?
    • Why was the technology developed? Specifically for the war? Did it already exist in a different application? Was it an accident? Try to find statistics showing the need for that advancement during World War II.
    • How did that advancement impact the ultimate outcome of the war? How did it impact medical practice on the home front?
  • The final product should be informative, yet simple to follow. The final product must include:
    • title or title page;
    • a clear description of the four medical technological advancements made during World War II;
    • high quality images; and
    • a bibliography containing at least four research sources used appropriate formatting.

Activity Four (90 minutes)

  • Divide students into groups of three.
  • Distribute (or make accessible online) the Army Talks – Combat Medicine booklet, That Men Might Live! The Story of the Medical Service – ETO, and The Combat Medic during World War II to each group of students.
  • Use the APPARTS Document Analysis Worksheet to break down each primary source. Groups should share their findings with each other.
  • Analyze the medical tools and supplies available to combat medics by accessing the following websites:
  • Complete the Battlefield Wounds Treatment handout by using appropriate internet research strategies to determine five typical wounds experienced by combat troops throughout the different theaters of World War II and the methods used to treat and triage those wounds.
  • Shuffle the five Battle Scenarios to match the size of the class (each group will need one scenario).
  • Have students draw one battle scenario (one per group). Give them two to three minutes to brainstorm types of injuries specific to that location.
  • Give each group shuffled role play cards from the Medic Deck. Students will randomly draw one card from the deck to determine their role in the scenario – each group will have one medic and the other members will have various wound cards specific to that scenario (for example, leg fractures in Operation Market Garden, malaria in Guadalcanal).
  • Set timer for 45 seconds for each wounded soldier in the group. Each group’s medic must complete the Treatment Plan for Combat Injuries for each of his or her group members before time runs out. As part of that plan, he or she needs to determine the order in which soldiers will be treated. Injured members may not assist, but medic can consult the field manual and research on how typical wounds are treated. Any group members not successfully treated when the timer goes off, die as a result of their injuries.
  • Spot check treatments at the end of the scenario to determine if the correct treatment plan was implemented for each wounded soldier. If the medic did not treat the soldier in the correct manner, the injured soldier dies in the scenario.
    • Rotate roles so that each student has a chance to be the medic.
  • Conduct a whole class debrief at the conclusion of the activity.
  • Use the following questions to guide your discussion:
    • How did you feel about the time element of the activity?
    • Who did you decide to treat first?
    • Which injuries were similar across battle scenarios?
    • Which injuries were different across battle scenarios?
    • After your “training,” were you ready to be a medic?
    • Were you happy with the medic in your group?
    • Did friendships complicate anything?

Assessment Materials

Assessment Activity (60 minutes)

  • Display the video clip Stories of Pointe du Hoc starting at 8:40 from ABMC.
  • Students will write about the incredible sacrifice that medics made to help the wounded throughout the war by playing the role of a reporter writing a news story aimed at sharing the experience of a combat medic.
  • Students will produce one of the following story formats focusing on data and research collected from a variety of different sources:
    • an informational news article about the day to day life of a combat medic;
    • a fictional short story from the perspective of a combat medic;
    • a fictional journal or blog written by a combat medic; or
    • if available, an interview with an actual combat medic from World War II with the article focused around that one person.
  • Include the following criteria in the finished product
    • a two-page article that addresses:
      • the use of specific medical advances during World War II and
      • the human element of how a combat medic impacted the lives of individual soldiers on the ground
    • an engaging headline or title
    • at least two high quality images
    • citation of sources (at least four) used for research using appropriate documentation protocol
  • This assessment can be scored using the News Story Rubric.

Methods for Extension

  • Students can use the photograph of a World War II blood transfusion (Private Roy W. Sicily on 8/9/43) to conduct a photograph analysis.
  • Students can create an original political cartoon that shows the significance of medical technology in helping the Allies win the war.
  • Students can create and use a “real” medical kit with limited supplies (example: use sugar packets as sulfa powder) for use in a full class mass casualty simulation to deepen understanding of the triage process and limited resources.
  • Students can research their own mock injuries for the full class simulation and use stage makeup techniques and props to create realistic wounds and injuries.
  • Students can research the role of medics in a different war and present their findings on the similarities and differences to the medics in World War II.
  • The American Battle Monuments Commission maintains U.S. military cemeteries overseas. These cemeteries are permanent memorials to the fallen, but it is important that students know the stories of those who rest here. To learn more about the stories of some of the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice, visit the Understanding Sacrifice Interactive Map.


  • Teachers can be sure students have access to all documents and handouts on a computer so that students can use online text-to-speech software like Natural Reader as needed.
  • Teachers can decrease the number of medical innovations required for groups in activity three or assign specific innovations to groups depending on ease of access to sources and reading level of appropriate sources.
  • Teachers can provide links to at least one appropriate source for activity three and/or reduce the number of required sources.
  • Teachers can assign heterogeneous groups and assign roles within the group to assist students with chunking the task.
  • Students with limited English proficiency or those with severe challenges with writing may choose to do a comic strip or graphic novel for activity three.
  • Teachers can assign medics for activity four instead of having them randomly selected within each group.
  • Students with slower written communication who serve as medics in the simulation can dictate their treatment plans to an assistant or other student to write on the chart.