With all good stories, there is a beginning, middle, and end. The tale of EMS is no different (except the end is not yet in sight), and the National EMS Museum is here to share your stories with the world while preserving the EMS legacy of our founding generation and inspiring future generations to take up the call. Our goal is to bring more stories to life and to have exhibited in every state by the end of 2021.
A History Worth Preserving
Since the beginning of humanity, there have been illness and injury that required immediate treatment to prolong life. Our response times and technical skills have grown exponentially since the “Flintstone era” as communities have come together to support and care for those in need.
During ancient times the Egyptians, Babylonians, Romans, and Greeks all developed codes of conduct for medical providers and emergency responders—in whatever form they existed. These ancient civilizations also developed some of the earliest medical texts, procedures, and equipment that have become foundational to modern medical practice in both prehospital and clinical care.
By the time Rome fell, the known world understood the workings of the body enough to combat disease and injury for most of the population. However, the first scientific golden age was not to last, and Europe fell back into the dark ages.
Fast-forward a few centuries, and the superpowers of the era were expanding across the globe, creating conflicts in just about every corner of the world. By the late 1700s and early 1800s, conflicts such as the Crimean and Napoleonic wars gave rise to the practice of triage, prehospital care, and critical care transport. Famous medical innovators were responsible for the establishment of some of the most recognizable prehospital care symbols still in use today—the Red Cross and the ambulance.
In the United States the beginnings of emergency medical response were growing with the country. While the Civil War changed the course of American history like no other conflict, it also changed the course of medical response for the world. The era’s crude battlefield hospitals led many social crusaders to demand change in military medical practice to ensure more soldiers survived a trip to the hospital tent, and when the war came to an official end and soldiers returned to civilian life, the medical innovations transferred with them and were implemented in communities across the country.
Early American Services
The first civilian ambulance service in the United States is a topic of hot debate among medics, historians, and EMS friends. Cincinnati General Hospital is generally credited with the first civilian service, started in 1865. In 1869 New York’s Bellevue Hospital established a citywide hospital service, and by 1889 New York City had nearly 4,000 calls annually.
At the same time the logging and mining industries of California were employing private physicians to run emergency calls for the camps, establishing some of the first private industry-based ambulance services. In 1899 the first motorized ambulance went into service at Chicago’s Michael Reese Hospital—it ran at a top speed of 16 mph.
Hospitals didn’t have the exclusive on ambulance services, though. The mortuary business was not to be left out of the potential profits of transporting the sick and injured. In 1880 Cleveland’s board of health likely granted the first mortuary ambulance permission to operate in the city. This critical move set the tone for many private services across the country that continued to perform well into the 1970s and beyond and created a unique rivalry among hospitals, mortuaries, and volunteer rescue services for decades.
But the tides started to turn at the end of the 20th century, and Washington became ready to enter the game. The 1966 publication of the “white paper”—formally Accidental Death and Disability: The Neglected Disease of Modern Society—helped lead to the establishment of national standards in EMS practice, training, and, most important, funding, culminating in the 1973 Emergency Medical Services Systems Act.
Today we operate within a national network of trained volunteers and professionals that create a dynamic critical care system to support communities across the United States. The next chapter of EMS history is being written as we learn to navigate a world full of technological advances and international collaboration unimaginable to those early emergency responders and the communities they served.
The National EMS Museum is honored to be the official keeper of EMS history and is constantly looking for new opportunities to share its collections through conference presentations, pop-up exhibitions, engaging public programs, and semipermanent displays at local museums across the country.
We invite you to become a member of the National EMS Museum today and help support its critical history-saving operations. The museum is a registered 501(c)(3), and any cash donation will receive a charitable receipt. For more information visit https://emsmuseum.org.
Kristy Van Hoven is director of development for the National EMS Museum.