Intended for healthcare professionals

Past And Present

The earliest days of first aid

BMJ 1994; 309 doi: (Published 24 December 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;309:1718
  1. John Pearn, national director of training St John Ambulance Australiaa
  1. a Department of Child Health, Royal Children's Hospital, Herston Qld 4029, Australia

    First aid, as a profession in its own right, has a history of only 120 years. It evolved from the teachings of the Royal Humane Society and military surgeons, who saw the wisdom of training in splinting and bandaging for battlefield wounds. In 1878 two Aberdeenshire military officers, Surgeon-Major Peter Shepherd of the Royal Herbert Military Hospital, Woolwich, London, and Colonel Francis Duncan established the concept of teaching first aid skills to civilians. This radical new enterprise, conducted under the auspices of the newly formed St John Ambulance Association, was a natural evolution from the body's philanthropic and ambuance transport work. Shepherd conducted the first class in the hall of the Presbyterian school in Woolwich using a comprehensive first aid curriculum that he had developed. Within months of that first class, local Woolwich civilians used their skills when the pleasure boat Princess Alice sank in the Thames at Woolwich, killing 600 people. Within a decade, the new discipline of first aid spread rapidly throughout the world, and by the end of the 19th century, hundreds of thousands of St John first aid certificates had been awarded in four continents. Shepherd's pioneering classes changed the world's concept of the need for the provision of skilled prehospital care.

    From the perspective of 20th century medicine the need for first aid training seems self evident. But first aid, as it exists today, has a history of only about 120 years. First aid comprises a series of drills and skills which have doctrinal underpinning and which require training; the procedures are constantly revised and are subject to ongoing medical audit. The discipline originated in 1878 from a pioneering and revolutionary experiment to teach members of the general public skills that had been developed for military stretcher bearers in the previous decade. This paper documents …

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