Bite the bullet, ease the pain


We’ve often heard the phrase “Bite the Bullet” meaning, “Accept the inevitable impending hardship and endure the resulting pain with fortitude.”

We’ve been doing a lot of collective “bullet biting” of late, what with the uncertain economy, escalating inflation and random acts of terrorism.  Things could be a lot worse – to wit:

surgery Before the days of effective anesthetics, soldiers were given bullets to bite on.

The theory goes that patients undergoing surgery would be given a stick of wood or a cloth to bite on in order to concentrate their attention away from the pain and also to protect against biting their own tongues.

A bullet, being somewhat malleable and not likely to break the patient’s teeth, is said to have been an impromptu battlefield alternative. Lead poisoning would probably have been a secondary concern in those circumstances!

Many artists, notably Rembrandt Van Rijn and Hieronymus Bosch, painted scenes of early surgery and none of those paintings shows patients biting into anything. Whether or not they might have been offered anything to nibble on, there’s little doubt that they would have been fortified with strong drink.

bit the bulletThe most frequently cited origin of the alleged ‘biting the bullet’ practice is the American Civil War. This seems rather improbable, as effective anesthesia using ether and chloroform was introduced in 1846/47 and ether was issued to U.S. military surgeons as early as 1849 – well before the US Civil War began in 1861.

The photograph to the right shows, albeit not too clearly, a patient undergoing amputation in a US Civil War field hospital, with a cloth, presumably soaked in ether/chloroform, held near his mouth. It doesn’t look like much fun but, given the choice, and apparently they were, surely patients would prefer unconsciousness to bullet chewing.

In spite of all the anxiety in the world, I’m reminded of a song penned by gospel singer Bill Gaither. It goes: “Try not to worry; try not to fret; try not to speculate or contemplate what hasn’t happened yet.”   I’m still carrying a bullet in my purse – just in case.

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