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.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 .