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Brief History of First Aid Kits

You’ve seen First Aid Kits in your homes, schools, offices, and hospitals, but do you know how the colorful and well-organized pouches became a part of our lives?

The history of the First Aid is a tale as old as human civilization, and First Aid Kit has come a long way since its origins in 1888. The story is unexpected, and will definitely make you go “wow”

What is the History of First Aid?

  • What is First Aid?

Before going into the history of First Aid kits, let’s first take a look at what First Aid is.

According to the Merriam- Webster dictionary, First Aid is the,

“Emergency care or treatment given to an ill or injured person before regular medical aid can be obtained”

The trained individuals that administer the first aid treatment are known as a first aiders.

And on the person of every first aider is always a colorful pouch containing all the necessary equipment and utensils used by the first aiders to save lives.

Old First Aid kit

Facts and Myths about First Aid History

If you were to ask someone when the concept of First Aid came into existence, chances are not too many people would know the answer. Many would assume that the concept of First Aid is a relatively recent phenomenon, some might even say that it came into existence during the First World War.

Contrary to popular belief, the concept of First Aid is far older than we realize. As mentioned above, it is a tale as old as human civilization.

Here is a timeline of some of the key events that led to the development of the modern first aid practice.

To make things easier, let’s divide the timeline to events prior to the introduction of the earliest First Aid kit and events following the development of the First Aid kit.

  • 500 BC 
  • Remnants of Ancient Greek pottery discovered by archeologists’ depicted images of individuals bandaging wounds of the injured. Records also show that the Roman Army also engaged in rudimentary First Aid practices.

  • 1023
  • The Knights Hospitaller of the Order of St. John was founded in Jerusalem to treat sick and injured pilgrims returning to and from the Holy Land.

    During the 18th Century, drowning became a major social concern, and one of the leading causes of death. In response,

  • 1740
  • Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation for drowning victims was officially recommended by the Paris Academy of Science. (This is one of the first official steps that made CPR and Artificial Resuscitation an integral part of First Aid)

  • 1767
  • The Society for the Recovery of Drowned Persons was established in Amsterdam. It became the first organized effort to address sudden and unexpected deaths.

  • 1773
  • William Hawes began to publically promote the power of artificial respiration.

  • 1859 
  • Swiss Businessman Jean-Henri Dunant organized local villagers to assist treating wounded soldiers in the aftermath of the Battle of Solferino.

    He noted his experiences in a book titled “Memory of Solferino.” Dunant’s writings would become the inspiration for the creation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

    Dunant would later go on to become the winner of the First Nobel Peace Prize.

  • 1870
  • Prussian Military Surgeon Freidrich von Esmarch introduces a formalized set of First Aid procedures to the military. The First Aid treatments introduced by Esmarch served the Prussian military immensely in the Franco-Prussian War.  

  • 1877
  • The St. John’s Ambulance Service was established in the United Kingdom based on the principles of Knights Hospitaller.

  • 1878
  • Surgeon Major Peter Shepard and Colonel Francis Duncan recognized the importance educating civilians on the art of First Aid and conducted a series of lectures which Shepard would later describe as “First Aid for the Injured.”

  • 1888
  • Johnson & Johnson published the Modern Methods of Antiseptic Wound Care and introduced the first commercial First Aid kits.

    Major First Aid practices developed after the introduction of the first commercial First Aid kits; 

  • 1890
  • Mathieson Henry Jacob establishes the St. John’s Ambulance Association centre in the Western Australian Colony. 

  • 1891
  • The first equivocally documented human chest compression performed by Dr. Friedrich Maass

  • 1892
  • 20 police officers, 10 railway workers, and two members of the community attend the inaugural First Aid training class commenced on 3rd March, 1892.  

  • 1903
  • First successful use of chest compressions in human resuscitation reported by Dr. George Crile.

    Clara Barton, President of the American Red Cross, forms a committee that establishes instructions for first aid among industrial workers.

    Civilian organized First Aid training courses begin in the United States.

    Old First Aid Kit
  • 1904
  • Dr. George Crile goes on to perform the first closed-chest cardiac massage in the United States

  • 1920
  • Earle Dickson, a cotton buyer for Johnson & Johnson, invents an adhesive compress to cover a small wound on his wife’s finger. The adhesive did not come off his wife’s finger despite her activities within the household.

    Johnson & Johnson would manufacture the product as BAND-AIDs for public use.

    In an attempt to boost sales, Johnson & Johnson offers free Band-Aids to Boy Scout troops.

    By 1924, Band-Aids become machine made with little red strings to open the cover. By 1938, they are solid sterilized, and by 1958, vinyl tape is used in its production.

  • 1954
  • James Elam becomes the first to prove that exhaled air was sufficient to maintain adequate oxygenation.

  • 1956
  • Mouth-to-Mouth Resuscitation is invented by Peter Safar, and James Elam. 

  • 1957
  • Mouth-to-Mouth Resuscitation is adopted by the US Army as a method to revive unresponsive victims. 

  • 1960
  • The development of Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) takes place.

    The American Heart Association (AHA) begins a program that familiarizes physicians with close-chest cardiac resuscitation. The program becomes the forerunner of CPR training for the general public.

  • 1972
  • The world’s first mass citizen CPR training takes place in Seattle, Washington, called Medic 2. Organized by Leonard Cobb, the program helped train over 100,000 people in its first two years.

  • 1997- 2006
  • The idea of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) comes to Tony Jorm, a mental health literacy researcher and his wife Betty Kitchener, a First Aid instructor with the Australian Red Cross.

    The First MHFA class was taught in Canberra, Australia.

    By 2006, work on the international MHFA guidelines begins.

What is the origin of the First Aid Kit?

The story of the First Aid Kit begins with a conversation on a train. The people involved were Robert Wood Johnson, and the Chief Surgeon of the Denver & Rio Grande Railway Company. Robert Wood Johnson would go on to be remembered as one of the founders of the multinational conglomerate Johnson & Johnson.

In 1888, the Chief surgeon explained to Robert the many dangers of railroad construction and the lack of medical supplies to treat industrial injuries miles away from any hospital.

In the early days, untrained laborers cared very little for hygiene. Still, they were the first to take action when accidents occurred. Unfortunately, they did more harm than good as their clumsy handling of the injured often caused the spread of infections and exacerbated injuries.

The ever-pragmatic Johnson saw this as an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. Not only would he solve a growing problem, but he would open a new avenue of business for his fledgling company. After careful consideration, J&J's Chief Pharmacist Fred Kilmer introduced the company's inaugural medical kit.

First-generation First Aid kits were packaged in durable wooden/ metal boxes. It consisted of various existing J&J surgical products such as gauze, bandages, and sutures. Since the equipment was made specifically for the railroad industry, it also contained supplies specific to the industry. Furthermore, the company understood the importance of educating the public.

In 1901, Johnson & Johnson published the Handbook of First Aid. The text became the United States’ first comprehensive and commercially available guide to First Aid.

In the late 1910s, 1920s and 30s, other companies began to produce their own First Aid kits customized to specific organizations such as the Boy Scouts. Other customized kits include;

Auto-kits: First Aid kits designed for early automobiles

Air-kits: First Aid kits designed for aircraft

Glass National Affiliated Safety Organization (NASO) Kit – The First Kit focused on cleanliness and visibility. Thus, the supplies were stored in glass vessels. (1917)

Standard Oil Co. Kit: The First Aid kit designed by Standard Oil Co. contained medical supplies in Aluminum tubes (1924)

Is the Australian History of First Aid Kits Different from other nations?

In "Where There Is No Doctor: Self Help and Pre-Hospital Care in Colonial Australia”, John Pearn painted the picture of early Australia. He notes that citizens of colonial Australia often relied on self-medication and a wide range of home remedies when sick and injured, as there was a shortage of nurses and doctors on the continent.

For several reasons, the development of First Aid kits in Australia did not significantly deviate from its counterparts in the UK and the USA. Due to the connection with the UK as one of its commonwealth states and the close economic and diplomatic ties shared with the USA, Australia often had direct access to supplies from the west. These supplies also included First Aid kits and supplies.

While international brands such as Johnson & Johnson continue to maintain a significant market share in Australia, their products continue to be challenged by local products of equal and superior quality. At present, local brands such as Survival Australia provide high-quality and highly customizable First Aid kits, supplies, and equipment ideal for any situation ranging from office mishaps, snake bites, and even motor accidents. Furthermore, Australian companies produce some of the best snake bite kits in the entire world.

Old First Aid Kit

Where to get the latest information on first aid kits?

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