In 1915, with World War I raging and casualties mounting, Britain's military doctors were faced with an outbreak of sepsis, a life-threatening byproduct of infection, and a shortage of cotton, which was crucial for making bandages. It was during this time of need that two Scotsmen -- botanist Isaac Bayley Balfour and surgeon Charles Walker Cathcart -- proposed the idea of making absorbent and antiseptic dressings out of sphagnum moss, also known as peat moss, which has been used throughout history to keep wounds clean. The idea was a life-saver for besieged soldiers and doctors. Balfour and Cathcart helped identify two moss species -- S. papillosum and S. palustre -- that worked best for controlling bleeding and helping wounds heal.
Life-saving moss on the battlefield:
- In an effort to stave off infections and sepsis, military doctors had tried everything from irrigating wounds with chlorine solutions to creating bandages infused with carbolic acid, formaldehyde or mercury chloride, with varying degrees of success.
- There are ancient accounts that warriors in the battle of Clontarf outside Dublin in 1014 used moss to pack wounds. It was also used by Native Americans, who lined children’s cradles and carriers with moss -- rather like a natural diaper.
- Moss was also used during other conflicts, including the Napoleonic and Franco-Prussian wars. But it wasn’t until World War I that medical experts realized the plant's full potential.