August 21, 2013

Case File #013.08.21: AMBULANCE

As I'm sure you already know, an ambulance is a siren-equipped motor vehicle used for transporting the sick and the injured to the hospital. But I'll bet you didn't know that the word ambulance is related to the adjective ambulatory, which means “capable of walking” and “related to walking” and was derived from the Latin verb ambulare, meaning “to walk about” or “to travel on foot.” So how did a wheeled, motorized emergency vehicle get a name that essentially means “walking”? Well, it all started around the middle of the eighteenth century when the French military developed the first truly mobile medical facility, a sort of modular hospital that was rather easy to assemble, disassemble, and carry from battlefield to battlefield. The French referred to the portable facility as hôpital ambulant, which literally translates as “walking hospital,” but by the 1790s, the phrase had evolved into the single word ambulance. During the Crimean War in the mid-nineteenth century, the British copied the French mobile-hospital concept and also borrowed its name, but when the Americans got wind of the idea, they put their portable hospitals (or ambulances, if you will) inside of covered wagons, thus making the facilities even easier to transport—not to mention eliminating the need for assembly and disassembly—and making it possible to quickly move the injured and the medics off the battlefield and out of harm's way. The British and the French soon followed suit, of course, and by the late nineteenth century, ambulance had basically come to mean “a field hospital on wheels.” After the invention of the faster and more powerful automobile, however, the ambulance became less of a portable hospital and more of a mobile but temporary life-support capsule in which the sick and injured can be quickly transported to a fully equipped medical facility.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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