Strange But True: Trauma care idea credited to railroad


Q: When you think about the history of medical practice, railroads probably don't come to mind. But why should they?

A: In the year 1900, one in every 28 railroad employees was injured on the job, and one in 399 died, says Jack El-Hai in "Discover" magazine. Brakemen lost hands while coupling cars, boilers exploded, and passengers were maimed in derailments or suffered common medical emergencies far from medical facilities. The railroads responded by developing railway surgery.

As early as 1849, the Erie Railroad employed a physician, and by the Civil War many companies had surgeons and other medical personnel on staff. They also began commissioning their own hospitals, like the Central Pacific did in 1870 in Sacramento, Calif., and within decades, there were some 35 railway hospitals in the U.S.

"This is really the birth of trauma care," says emergency medicine physician Ryan Stanton. Railway doctors promoted preventive vaccination programs and pioneered pre-employment physical exams, the development of first-aid kits, and the diagnosis of colorblindness — a cause of fatal accidents when impaired workers failed to correctly identify colored signals. By World War I, railway surgeons accounted for 10 percent of the country's physicians and provided care for 2 million rail employees. But the rise of public hospitals and private medical insurance, plus the decline of railroads due to competition from autos and trucks, led to a rapid decline in railway medicine.

Q: If you're an elephant determined to get food that's out of your reach, what do you do?

A: Biologists from Kyoto University described two female Asian elephants at Japan's Kamine Zoo that used their trunks to blast gusts of air to knock out-of-reach food into their grasp, as reported by Kaori Mizuno et al. in "Animal Cognition." The animals blew the food until it came within easy access, then slowed the blowing as the distance to the food became shorter, suggesting that they used their breath not only to retrieve the food, but also to fine-tune the food position for easy grasping. According to the authors, "the use of breath to drive food is unique to elephants, with their dexterous trunks and familiarity with manipulating the act of blowing, which is commonly employed for self-comfort and acoustic communication."

Q: Jeopardy fans, you're no doubt adept at providing questions for given answers. How about these? A. insects as a favorite food; b. cats sent into microgravity; c. feral rabbits of Japan; d. fungus as a symbiotic partner; e. horse racing that scored her a first with this sports magazine.

A: For a. above, the question is "What does an entomophagist like to eat?" (from "Mental Floss" magazine as reported by Lucas Adams)

B. "In 1947, the U.S. Air Force did what with cats?" By observing cats in space, it hoped to understand how astronauts would also move in zero gravity.

C. "Okunoshima, a small island in Japan, is infested with hundreds of what?"

D. "Woodpeckers share a symbiotic relationship with what?" According to the magazine, "The fungi help soften the wood and make hole-boring easier for the woodpeckers. Meanwhile, the birds spread the fungi to new trees."

E. "Robyn Smith was the first woman to be featured on the cover of 'Sports Illustrated.' What did she compete in?" Interestingly, horse-racing Smith was also Fred Astaire's wife.

Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich Sones at


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