Photograph of nine different first aid manuals

First Aid Manuals

The History of the First Aid Manual

First Aid Manuals provide written guidance about how to treat an ill or injured patient. The publication of these manuals have been a crucial part of St John Ambulance’s first aid training offer since inception.

1878 – Aid for Cases of Injuries or Sudden Illness

In the early days of the St John Ambulance Association, Surgeon Major Peter Shepherd produced a First Aid Manual to assist the Metropolitan Police and those receiving first aid training. Aids for Cases of Injuries or Sudden Illness, was first published in 1878. The St John Ambulance Association, which provided first aid training, had been established one year earlier in 1877. The manual was created to satisfy the desire of the general public to learn first aid and study for examinations. Tragically, Shepherd died a year later whilst serving in South Africa, ambushed as he transported a wagon of injured troops.

1901 – First Aid to the Injured

First Aid to the Injured, written by James Cantlie, was the “Authorised Textbook of the St. John Ambulance Association” between 1901 and 1958. In total, 40 editions of First Aid to the Injured were published, the last being issued in 1950.

Cantlie was a Scottish born doctor who, like Shepherd, had studied medicine at Aberdeen University. A fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons from 1877, Cantlie served as an assistant surgeon and later Surgeon at Charing Cross Hospital in London. In 1888 he took up a position in Hong Kong and co-founded the Hong Kong College of Medicine for Chinese, later the University of Hong Kong. At the end of his career he was president of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine which he had founded in 1907.  Cantlie had been involved with St John Ambulance for much of his career. In June 1887, he gave St John’s first public demonstration in first aid at the Medical Congress and Exhibition held in South Kensington. It was a last-minute affair and Cantlie later confessed that he did not know what constituted an ambulance demonstration. Cantlie died in 1926.

The 39th Edition of First Aid to the Injured was the most issued edition of the manual. The 39th Edition was issued in September 1937 to deal with three questions that had arisen since the 1928 publication of the 38th edition. These are outlined in the Preface as: the scope of first aid, the treatment of burns and the method of transporting patients with a spinal injury. It was felt that a stricter definition of the term first aid was needed so that first aiders are not encouraged to encroach on the role of a nurse. Unlike the pervious manual, which contained drawings of men in uniforms, the 39th Edition featured photographs of men in civilian clothes assisting casualties. Photographs of X-rays were also printed.

Image of a page of First Aid Manual with x-ray picutres

Over three million copies had been printed by December 1943, triple that of the previous edition. The wartime context made first aid all the more important and large numbers of people, including Air Raid Precaution Officers received first aid training from St John and the British Red Cross.  Copies printed after 1941 are printed with a soft cover due to the lack of paper during wartime and sold for a reduced price of 1s 6d compared to 2s. for the hard cover copies. In November 1945, a supplement to the 39th edition was issued to present ‘knowledge gained in certain aspects of First Aid by the Experiences of the War’.

1958- First Aid Manual

Since 1958, a first aid manual has been issued jointly by St John Ambulance, the British Red Cross and St Andrews Ambulance Association. The publication has also been referred to as the conjoined manual. Now in its 11th edition, we stock copies in the Museum shop.

Other First Aid Manuals

St John Ambulance is an international charity which spread around the world, particularly to countries that were part of the British Empire.  Copies of First Aid to the Injured were translated into the native languages of many regions of the world where St John Ambulance worked. In our collection we hold copies in languages from the Indian subcontinent such as Hindi, Gujarati and Tamil, among many other languages. By 1943, the handbook had been translated into 23 different languages and dialects.

A selection of First Aid Manuals in other languages
A selection of First Aid Manuals in other languages

Specialist editions of first aid manuals have been published throughout the period covered in this article. These manuals go into greater detail about problems that are specific to people working in particular circumstances. For example, the copy of First Aid in Coal Mines pictured in the bottom middle of the image explains how to use a “trambulance”, a piece of equipment designed to transport an injured patient along tracks in a mine.

Photograph of nine different first aid manuals
A selection of specialist First Aid Manuals from our collection

Interpreting your copy of First Aid to the Injured

title page of First Aid for the Injured
Title page of 39th Edition of First Aid for the Injured

If you own a copy of First Aid to the Injured, it is possible to learn a great deal about your copy by looking at the title page on the inside of the book. The edition of the publication can be seen in the middle of the page reading “Thirty-ninth Edition”. “Tenth Impression” tells us that this book came from the 10th print run of the 39th Edition. As we can see from the next piece of information, the 10th impression was a print run of “100,000” copies. If we look at the bottom of the page to the left, we can see that the printers of the manual were referred to as “L.M.R”, and that this print run took place in January 1939 hence “1/39”. The year of publication is sometimes printed on the spine of these books. Given that the impressions of the 39th edition were being made until 1950, a number of different dates can be seen on the spine of these manuals.

The layout of this information can vary. Below is the title page of a revised 37th edition of the manual. Here we can see that it is the third issue. Instead of saying how many impressions were made, the numbers give us information about the total number of impressions that this revised edition had been made so far. In the bottom left hand corner again you can see the initials of the printer and, unlike with the 39th edition, the number of copies that were printed is listed here.

Title page of 37th Edition of First Aid for the Injured
Title page of 37th Edition of First Aid for the Injured


Information regarding the 39th Edition is taken from pg. 130 of Treasures, Highlights from the Collection of the Museum of the Order of St John by Tom Foakes, Head of Heritage at the Museum. Rosie Creswell wrote about the 39th edition for the publication.


The Museum of the Order of St John would like to thank all those who have supported and continue to support its work. In particular, the Museum would like to thank the following for their generosity: