Posts tagged: Harvard Surgical Unit

New Exhibit at the Countway Library Commemorates Harvard Medical School’s Relief Efforts during World War I

By , February 15, 2017

Soldiers Wounded at the Battle of the Somme Arriving at No. 22 General Hospital, 1916 [0004184]

Soldiers Wounded at the Battle of the Somme Arriving at No. 22 General Hospital, 1916 [0004184]

Although the United States did not enter World War I until April 1917, American medical personnel were active in war relief efforts from nearly the beginning of the conflict. Harvard Medical School—its faculty and its graduates—played a key role in this relief work by providing staff for French and English hospitals and military units, and these early endeavors provided invaluable experience once America came into the war and the need to organize and staff base and mobile hospitals for the U.S. Army became critical to the war effort.

Noble Work for a Worthy End, a new exhibit at the Countway’s Center for the History of Medicine, charts Harvard’s participation in this medical relief work and experiences in military medicine and surgery through the wealth of first-hand documentation preserved by the men and women who volunteered their time and labor, sometimes at great sacrifice, to helping the sick and wounded of the First World War. Highlights of the display include records of the Harvard University Service organized by Harvey Cushing at the American Ambulance Hospital in Paris.  This unit’s brief sojourn in the spring of 1915 is documented through photographs and postcards, publications, and a copy of Elliott Carr Cutler’s daily journal of his experiences.

The Medical School’s most enduring contribution to the war effort was the Harvard Surgical Unit, which first arrived in Europe in July 1915.  Inspired by Sir William Osler, the unit provided physicians, surgeons, dentists, and nurses to staff the British Expeditionary Force’s No. 22 General Hospital at Camiers, France. The exhibit includes photograph albums, letters, drawings, newsclippings, Paul Dudley White’s diary account of a case of shell shock, medical field cards and case notes, and unusual ephemera, including an armband worn by members of the Unit and an enamel pin presented by the Harvard Corporation to the unit’s nurses, along with a testimonial of gratitude from King George V.

Final Inspection of Harvard Unit at Fort Totten, N.Y., May 11, 1917 [0003947]

Final Inspection of the Harvard Unit at Fort Totten, N.Y., May 11, 1917 [0003947]

Once the United States entered the European conflict, Harvard faculty and students became involved with staffing base hospitals for the Army. The exhibit also chronicles the work and experiences at Base Hospital No. 5, a unit formed from Harvard and Peter Bent Brigham Hospital personnel.  Base Hospital No. 5, one of the first units to reach France, remained on loan to the British Expeditionary Force for the duration of the war, at which point it had treated some 45,000 soldiers, and, notably, sustained casualties from an air raid bombing on September 4, 1917. Photographs, a letter from Harvey Cushing describing the air raid, and records of Walter B. Cannon’s research on surgical shock are all included.

Noble Work for a Worthy End: Harvard Medical School in the First World War is on display on the first floor of the Countway Library of Medicine and open to the public, Monday through Friday, 9:00am-5:00pm. A companion online exhibit is also available here .

Staff Finds: World War I Nurse’s Scrapbook

Pages from Nurse Wallace's scrapbook - including the small figure of a fish (middle left) she found in her bathtub on her birthday.

While conducting a preservation survey, Center staff discovered two volumes of a World War I-era scrapbook, created by Blanche Wallace, also known as Mary Blanche Wallace. Wallace was a nurse with the Harvard Surgical Unit of the British Expeditionary Force in France between 1916 and 1919. Wallace had completed her education at the New England Baptist Hospital Training School for Nurses and joined the Red Cross nursing service. She went to France as part of a party of 25 other Red Cross nurses.

The Harvard Surgical Unit was originally sent to England in 1915 and had been attached to the Number 22 General Hospital in France since July of that year. This is likely where Wallace spent most of her posting abroad. It is also possible that she – or other nurses from her party – spent time at the Number 11 and Number 13 hospitals where later American nurses were posted in 1917. Since American nurses could travel more freely when on leave than British sisters, it is difficult to deduce where Wallace might have been working from where she went on leave, and she apparently travelled quite widely.

The scrapbooks document Wallace’s journey from Boston to New York, Liverpool, and France in the company of the other nurses. She collected memorabilia as she went, including the programs from theatre performances she attended in New York and Liverpool, postcard views of Le Havre, Paris, Monte Carlo, Monaco, and Lyons, ticket stubs from railway journeys, and photographs of the nurses and soldiers with whom she worked.

Once in France, Wallace does not focus on her work as a nurse or on the war going on around her; instead, she focuses on the more pleasant aspects of her time abroad, recording sightseeing trips, famous monuments, and attractive views. While the scrapbooks do reflect France at war in that there are photographs of the hospitals where Wallace worked and soldiers feature in the notes she wrote about various items, trips, and photographs, her aim seems to have been to record the more amusing times she had while in the country, not the horrors of the conflict.

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