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

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]

This post courtesy Jack Eckert, Public Services Librarian at the Center for the History of Medicine at the Francis A. Countway Library of Harvard Medical School.

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 the 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 .

Yale Medicine Goes to War, 1917

A new exhibition from Medical Heritage Library partner Yale University entitled “Yale Medicine Goes to War, 1917″ commemorates America’s entry into the war at the local level. From mobilizing a “first of its kind” Mobile Hospital Unit, No. 39, to research on the effects of chemical warfare, this exhibition explores the many ways that Yale Medical School faculty, researchers, and students contributed to the war effort at home and abroad. The war diaries of Harvey Cushing, a pioneering neurosurgeon and Sterling Professor of Neurology at the Yale School of Medicine (1932–1939), are also on view, documenting the trials and trauma of war, particularly brain damage arising from shell fragments, shrapnel, and gunshot wounds.

 

Harvey Cushing in uniform.

Harvey Cushing in uniform.

We cannot talk about Yale’s involvement in the Great War without mentioning Dr. Harvey Cushing. While he was teaching at the Harvard Medical School, Cushing, who graduated from Yale in 1891 and would later become Sterling Professor of Neurology in the Yale School of Medicine, directed a French hospital at the war front. He meticulously recorded his experience in a set of diaries, currently located in Medical Historical Library, Yale University. In 1936, Cushing published a single volume on his war experiences, derived from his diaries, entitled From A Surgeon’s Journal, 1915-1918.

During the war, Cushing operated on head injuries that contained shrapnel. He developed, with his colleagues, a surgical magnet that could help him reach shrapnel pieces without killing the patient. In From a Surgeon’s Journal, Cushing discusses a difficult removal, and the refitting of the magnet using a wire nail to finally grab an elusive fragment of steel embedded in his patient’s brain. Cushing, who was also an artist, drew a rough sketch of the scene.

Image of Harvey Cushing removing shrapnel from a soldier’s brain using a magnet.

Image of Harvey Cushing removing shrapnel from a soldier’s brain using a magnet.

Other materials in the Medical Heritage Library on Cushing and the Harvard Unit’s experiences in the war include The story of U.S. Army Base Hospital No. 5, authored by Cushing and published in 1919, and a letter from Cushing published in the Harvard Alumni Bulletin on the bombing of the Harvard Base Hospital in 1917.

The Medical Heritage Library is currently working on a multi-institutional online exhibition that will encompass a larger history of medicine in World War 1. Look for in the coming months!