Posts tagged: World War I

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 .

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Brigham and Women’s Hospital Archives Collections—Spotlight

By , May 28, 2016

Remembering Brigham’s women volunteers of World War I via a storied artifactBrigham and Women's Hospital Archives, BWH c3, Peter Bent Brigham Hospital Records. Volunteer workers in the Home Work Department of the New England Surgical Dressings Committee workrooms at 238 Beacon St. (Residence of Mrs. L. Carteret Fenno). Left to right: Miss Elizabeth Train, Mrs. Hatherly Foster, Jr., Mrs. Charles Rowley. [Photo is stamped with date "MAR 17 1918". Photo purchased for BWH archives from Historic Images, Memphis Tennessee, via eBay.]

“An organization called the Surgical Dressings Committee has started work in the Zander Ward of the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital. The office, workroom, storage and packing rooms are all in the ward. Here fifty different surgical dressings are prepared for the small French hospitals. There are over 300 volunteers from Greater Boston who work in groups for several hours each day under the supervision of trained nurses, the work being inspected by the hospital surgeons. After sterilization, the dressings are packed for transportation in hermetically sealed tins. These are placed in wooden boxes, of a size and shape to be easily handled.”

This American Journal of Nursing article published in December of 1915 announced the start of an organization whose work became so important to saving the lives of wounded soldiers that Dr. Harvey Cushing, 1st Surgeon-in-Chief of the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital and leader of Base Hospital #5, the Harvard military hospital unit serving in France during WWI, Surgical Dressings Plaque3awas moved to create a memorial tablet for it with the intention of permanently embedding it in the walls of his hospital. The 3 foot tall plaque—gold engraved letters in bronze mounted on stone—was installed just outside the Zander Ward and dedicated in a formal ceremony on May 25th 1923. It was removed and placed in storage at an unknown point years later, probably during one of the hospital’s many remodeling projects. Currently the plaque is cared for at the Center for the History of Medicine in the Countway Library as one of the treasures of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital Archives Collections. The engraved text reads:

“To commemorate the pioneer work of the Surgical Dressings Committee. Through their labors, which centered in this building October 1915 to June 1918, eighteen million dressings made by six thousand women throughout New England were assembled, sterilized, sealed in tins, and shipped to Europe for the wounded of the allied armies.”

The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal in July of 1923 reprinted “The Boston Tins,” Cushing’s address at the unveiling of the plaque. In it he described the two approaches necessary for one to convalesce from the devastation of war: forgetfulness—and remembrance.

“…to dwell upon such bright episodes as glow from the background of our otherwise somber recollections—the times and occasions when people did sane, wholehearted and unselfish things in behalf of a stricken world. Many of these things were done by women.”

We know much about the things done by the women of the Surgical Dressings Committee and of Cushing’s efforts to memorialize them, A letter book, bound, containing documentation about the WWI Surgical Dressings Committee and a tablet erected in its honor.from the letters, receipts, and recollections assembled and bound in a scrapbook by Dr. Cushing himself. In 1972, someone doing a closet cleaning in a hospital conference room found and discarded the dusty volume.  Luckily, an observant surgical resident, recognizing its historic value, rescued it from the trash. He recently donated the scrapbook back to the Brigham and Women’s Hospital for the Archives.

The 100th anniversary of the “Great War” seems an opportune time to be reminded, thanks to the plaque and the scrapbook, that the name, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, reflects a legacy, not only of caring for women patients, but also for the historic service of its women staff and volunteers.

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Staff Finds: Anti-VD and the American Soldier

While processing the Harry C. Solomon papers (1916-1968), Center for the History of Medicine staff discovered a folder of newspaper clippings and assorted pamphlets concerned with the anti-venereal disease efforts of the immediate post-World War I era. Solomon was a psychiatrist and mental health reformer who served with the American Expeditionary Force in France during World War I and, during the early part of his career, was particularly interested in the mental and congenital effects of venereal diseases, specifically syphilis. He and his wife, Maida Herman Solomon, wrote a text titled Syphilis of the Innocent about the effects of syphilis infection on the family.

The clippings and pamphlets in the Solomon papers include printed materials concerning the return of men from overseas service warning them about the dangers of unguarded sexual activity.

The pamphlets use vivid but indirect language; today, none of them would likely be considered “factual” enough to allow anyone to avoid infection. Keeping Fit: V.D. Bulletin No. 1, for example, from the United States Public Health Service, describes two common sexually transmitted infections (gonorrhea and syphilis) by concentrating more on the deleterious long-term effects than the mode of transmission or immediate symptoms; it is difficult to tell how a man might know he was infected going by the description of the disease as presented! The advice for avoiding infection is straight from the tradition of “muscular Christianity”: sufficient exercise, cold baths, fresh air, enough sleep, good food, and sexual self-control. A similar pamphlet from the Massachusetts State Department of Health combines vigorous anti-venereal disease rhetoric with an appeal to temperance: “A little to drink and then no care or thought about the risk you run or the disgrace you invite. NOT A DROP OF LIQUOR [sic] is a safe rule.”

Other pamphlets, such as When They Come Home (pictured above), were directed at those on the home front and recommend local “clean-up” programs to rid communities of red-light districts and open prostitution before the return of soldiers. The focus of these pamphlets seems to be as much to protect local young women from the predations of returning infected soldiers as it is to protect the veterans themselves.

The pamphlets and clippings from local and national medical journals are a fascinating look at contemporary perceptions of venereal disease and its prevention.

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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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An American Surgeon in Paris

Inscription by Dr. Elliott C. Cutler to President Emeritus Eliot on flyleaf of journal.

In spring 1915, a deputation of surgeons and nurses from the Harvard Medical School travelled to Paris to join the service at the American Ambulance Hospital, giving medical aid to injured soldiers from battles taking place across Europe. The unit had been invited by Dr. Joseph Blake, one of the surgeons already working in Paris.

One of the surgeons who came from Harvard was Dr. Elliott Carr Cutler. In 1916, he put together a journal of the expedition, publishing it as A Journal of the Harvard Medical School Unit to The American Ambulance Hospital in Paris. The unit totalled 17, including surgeons, medical staff, and four nurses to work at the Hospital at Neuilly.

The Journal starts with the departure of the unit from Boston in March 1915 and concludes with an epilogue written in Canada in July of the same year, after the unit had taken over the hospital service for the intervening three months.

Cutler describes the trip, the difficulties the unit had even in getting into France through Spain (customs officers insisted on opening some boxes of chocolates that had been given as gifts and the Harvard unit only retained them with difficulty), and the final arrival and work at the Hospital. The unit took over all aspects of the Hospital work, including devising a filing system to record and store patient information. Some of the doctors took opportunity of their time in France to make tours, some to historical sites, including Versailles, but often visiting other hospitals and medical services, some very close to the front, or the front itself, under appropriate supervision from armed services.

The day-to-day medical services given to wounded soldiers receive attention, too. Cutler is dispassionate in recording what cases are brought in and what can be done for them, even saying once when discussing some discharged soldiers who were returning for further work on old wounds, “It was a considerable blow to our hopes for more cranial work, though to be sure they were wounded in the head.” (32) Despite this early breeziness, as time goes by Cutler is clearly affected by what he is seeing. As the major “season” for battles over the spring and summer advances as the weather improves, Cutler notes that the wounds become worse and the number of patients higher. Long days in the surgery are mentioned and Cutler sometimes waxes philosophical about what the overall “point” of the war might be, when the major outcome seems to be shattered bodies.

The Journal was digitized for the Medical Heritage Library.  Visit the full collection here.

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