Category Archives: Medicine in WWI

JUST RELEASED: Easing Pain on the Western Front (McFarland, 2020)

We are pleased to announce the publication of Easing Pain on the Western Front: American Nurses of the Great War and the Birth of Modern Nursing Practice, the book that has grown out of Paul Stepansky’s popular series of blog essays, “Remembering the Nurses of WWI.”  It has been lauded as “an important contribution to scholarship on nurses and war” (Patricia D’Antonio, Ph.D.) that is simultaneously “the  gripping story of nurses who advanced their profession despite the emotional trauma and physical hardships of combat nursing” (Richard Prior, DNP).  The Preface is presented to the readers of “Medicine, Health, and History” in its entirety.

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PREFACE

Studies in the history of nursing have their conventions, and this study of American nursing in World War I does not adhere to them.  It is not an examination of the total experience of military nurses during the Great war.  Excepting only the first chapter, which addresses the American war fever of 1917 and the shared circumstances of the nurses’ enlistment, little attention is paid to aspects of their lives that have engaged other historians.  I do not review the nurses’ families of origin, their formative years, or their reasons for entering the nursing profession.  Similarly, there is relatively little in these pages of the WWI nurses as women, of their role in the history of the women’s movement, or of their personal relationships, romantic or otherwise, with the men with whom they served.

In their place Easing Pain on the Western Front focuses on nursing practice, by which I mean the actual caregiving activities of America’s Great War nurses and their Canadian and British comrades.  These activities comprise the role of nurses in diagnosis, in emergency interventions, in medication decisions, in the use of available technologies, and in devising creative solutions to treatment-resistant and otherwise atypical injuries. And it includes, in these several contexts, nurses’ evolving relationship with the physicians alongside whom they worked.  Among historians of nursing, Christine Hallett stands out for weaving issues of nursing practice into her excellent accounts of the allied nurses of WWI, with a focus on the nurses of Britain and the British Dominions.  Hallett has no counterpart among historians of American nursing, and as a result no effort has been made to gauge the impact of WWI on the trajectory of nurse professionalization in America, both inside and outside the military.

This study begins to address this lacuna from a perspective that stands alongside nursing history.  It  comes from a historian of ideas who works in the history of American medicine.  It is avowedly historicist in nature, grounded in the assumption that nursing practice is not a Platonic universal with a self-evident, objectivist meaning.  Rather this type of practice, like all types of practice, is historically determined, with the line between medical treatment and nursing care becoming especially fluid during times of crisis.  It is intended to supplement the existing literature on WWI nurses, especially the excellent work of Hallett and other informative studies of British, Canadian, and Australian nurses, respectively.  The originality of the work lies in its focus on American nurses, its thematic emphasis on nursing activities, and its argument for the surprisingly modern character of the latter.  Close study of nursing practice, especially in the context of specific battlefield injuries, wound infections, and infectious diseases, yields insights that coalesce into a new appreciation of just how much frontline “doctoring” these nurses actually did.

The case for modern nursing practice in WWI is strengthened by comparative historical inquiry that renders the study, I hope, a more general contribution to the history of military nursing and medicine.  In each of the chapters to follow, I work into the narrative comparative treatment of WWI nursing with nursing in the American Civil War of 1861-1865, the Spanish-American War of 1898, and/or the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902.  The gulf that separates Great War nursing from that of wars only two decades earlier, we will see, is wide and deep.  In the concluding chapter, I invert the case for modernity by looking forward from America’s Great War nurses to the American nurses who served in World War II and Vietnam.  If Great War nurses had little in common with the Civil War nurses who preceded them by a half century, they share a great deal, surprisingly, with their successors in Vietnam a half century later.

The focus on nursing practice, then, far from being restrictive in scope, opens to a wide range of issues – medical, cultural, political, and military. Consider, for example, the very notion of healthcare practice, which is determined by a confluence of factors.  Specific theories of disease, rationales for treatment of specific conditions, putative mechanisms of cure, and the grounds for “proving” cure are all central to the historical study of healthcare practice.  Female nursing practice, with the bodily intimacies it entails, also implicates considerations of gender – of what, keeping to the time frame of this study, early-twentieth-century female hands might do to male bodies, and what the males who “owned” these bodies might comfortably permit female hands to do.  Depending on the historical location of nursing practice, issues of social class, nationality, ethnicity, and race may count for as much or more than gender.

By channeling our gaze onto what nurses of the Great War actually did with wounded, suffering, distraught, and dying soldiers, we learn about the many factors that enter into combat nursing at one moment in modern history.  The focus on nursing practice provides a new perspective on the medical advances of the Great War; the role of nurses in making and implementing these advances; the new professional status that accompanied this process; and the American military’s emerging appreciation of trained nurses, indeed of female officers in general.  The focus on nursing practice draws a different picture of the evolution of military personnel policy and the changing social mores and political pressures that accompanied this evolution.

The fate of WWI combat nurses’ role back on the homefront in the aftermath of war is a separate story that I address but briefly in the concluding chapter.  More work should be done on the relationship between military and civilian nursing practice, especially the fate of combat nurses who return to civilian nursing after wartime service.  To keep to the subject matter of this study, the experience of America’s WWI nurses back in civilian hospitals offers an illuminating window into the frustrations and accomplishments of nurses, indeed of professional women in general, in the American workplace in the two decades between the world wars.

For American readers Easing Pain on the Western Front may prove interesting for another reason.  Our increasing reliance on nurses to meet the health care challenges of the twenty-first century, especially in the realm of primary care, underscores the relevance of the unsuspectedly modern Great War nurse providers.  Indeed, they offer a fascinating point of departure for ongoing debates by nurses, physicians, social scientists, and politicians about the scope of practice of nurse practitioners in relation to physicians.  This is because America’s Great War nurses, no less than the nurses of other combatant nations, had to step up during battle “rushes” that overwhelmed their surgeon colleagues.  At such times, and in the weeks and months of intensive care that followed, they became autonomous clinical providers, true forebearers of the nurse practitioners and advanced practice nurses of the present day.  The fact that their professional leap forward occurred in understaffed casualty clearing stations and field hospitals on the Western front during the second decade of the twentieth century lends salience to their accomplishments.

Notwithstanding the many streams of contingency that flow into nursing practice at a given moment in history, I hasten to point out that I am not a historian of gender and that my comments on gender, not to mention ethnicity and race, are sparing.  I invoke them only in the context of specific nursing activities, especially when they were raised by the nurses themselves.  The same may be said of the nurses’ personal lives.  I ignore neither the emotional toll of combat nursing nor the psychological adaptations to which it gave rise.  But here again these issues are addressed primarily in relation to nursing activities, especially the nurses’ perceptions of and reactions to the wounded, ill, and dying they cared for.  I leave to others more comprehensive study of the gender-related, racial, and psychological aspects of American military nursing in World War I and other wars, noting only that the scholarship of Darlene Clark Hine, Margaret Sadowski, and Kara Dixon Vuic has begun to mine this rich vein of nursing history to great effect.

The cohort of nurses at the heart of this study is not limited to American nurses.  They include Canadian and British nurses as well.  In the case of the former, the ground for inclusion is not especially problematic, since many Canadian nurses trained in the United States; indeed, some both trained and worked in the States prior to their wartime service.  Ella Mae Bongard, for example, a Canadian from Picton, Ontario, trained at New York Presbyterian Hospital, practiced in New York for two years after graduating in 1915, and then volunteered with the U.S. Army Nursing Corps.  She ended up at a British hospital in Étretat, where she served with several of her Presbyterian classmates.  The Canadian Alice Isaacson, who served with the Canadian Army Medical Corps, was a naturalized American citizen.  Among other members of the Canadian Nurse Corps,  Mary Catherine Nichols Gunn trained in Ferrisburg VT and initially worked at Nobel Hospital outside Seattle; Annie Main Gee trained at Minneapolis City Hospital with postgraduate studies at New York Polyclinic; and Eleanor Jane McPhedran trained at New York Hospital School of Nursing and worked in the area for three years after graduating.  In all, the training of Canadian nurses and the nursing services they provided were  very much in line with American nursing.

In the case of several prominent British nurses cited throughout the work – Kate Luard, Edith Appleton, Dorothea Crewdson – I am arguably on less certain ground.  British nurses – veiled and addressed as “Sister” –cannot strictly speaking play a role in American nursing practice during the Great War.   I include them nonetheless for several reasons.  The fact is that many British nurses, no less than the Canadians, served abroad for the duration of the war; usually their wartime service extended beyond the Armistice of November 1918 by up to a year.   The duration of their wartime experience makes their diaries and letters, taken en masse, more revelatory of treatment-related issues than those of their American colleagues, whose term of service  was a year or less.  The reflections of Canadian and British nurses on nursing practice on the Western front lend illustrative force to the same battlefield injuries, systemic infections, and psychological traumata encountered by the America nurses as well.

Shared nursing practices were reinforced by considerable interchange among the allied nurses.  Within months of the outbreak of war, American Red Cross (ARC) nurses, all native born and white per ARC requirements, sailed to Europe to lend a hand.  On September 12, 1914, the first 126 departed from New York Harbor on a relief ship officially renamed Red Cross for the duration of the voyage.  A second group of 12 nurses joined three surgeons on a separate vessel destined for Serbia.  Other nurse contingents followed over the next several months, all part of the American Red Cross’s “Mercy Mission.”

Technically ARC nurses were envoys of a neutral nation, and those in the initial group ended up not only in England and France but in Russia, Austro-Hungary, and Germany as well.   In the last the ARC worked in concert with the German Red Cross, and American nurses like Caroline Bauer, stationed in Kosel, Germany in 1915, expressed genuine fondness for the “brave and good” German soldiers under her care.  For the majority of nurses, however, pre-1917 service in British and French hospitals, despite some initial tensions with British supervisors, reinforced ideological and emotional bonds and introduced American nurses to the realities of combat nursing on the Western front.

Even after America’s entry into the war in 1917, American nurses were typically assigned on arrival to British or Canadian hospitals, where they continued their tutelage under senior Canadian and British nursing sisters until returning to their units once their hospitals were ready for them.  Allowing for occasional exceptions, the same medicines (sometimes with different names) were administered, the same procedures performed, and the same technologies employed by the nurses of the allied nations.  To ignore what the Canadian and British nurses have to say about the same issues of nursing practice encountered by the Americans would enervate the study without leading to any refinement of its thesis.

And so, aided by the testimony of Canadian and British nurses,  I am secure in my thesis as it pertains to American nursing and the birth of modern nursing practice.  That being said, I leave it to scholars more knowledgeable than I about Canadian and British nursing history to validate, amend, or reject the thesis in relation to their respective nations.

Finally, it bears noting that in a work about nursing practice that draws on the recollections of a cohort of American, Canadian, and British nurses, each nurse is very much her own person with a personal story to tell.  The memoirs, letters, and diaries that frame this study provide elements of these stories, of how each nurse’s experience interacted with her family history, training, personality, temperament, and capacity for stress management.

In a general way, reactions to the actualities of nursing on the Western front fall along a spectrum of psychological and existential possibilities. At one pole is the affirmation of the combat nursing life provided by Dorothea Crewdson: “I enjoy life here very much indeed. Wonderfully healthy and free.”   At the opposite pole are the mordant reflections of the writer Mary Borden, for whom “The nurse is no longer a woman.  She is dead already, just as I am – really dead, and past resurrection.”  The gamut of reactions, and the richly idiomatic language through which they were expressed, are woven into my narrative at every turn.  I am most concerned, however, with the nurses’ transition from one mindset to another, especially the abruptness with which the life-affirming brio of Crewdson gave way to the horror, demoralization, and depersonalization of Borden. The happy excitement and prideful sense of participation in the war effort with which American nurses set out for the front often dissipated shortly after they arrived and saw the human wreckage that would be the locus of their “nursing.”

Signposts of personal transformation, which I gather together as epiphanies, represent my point of departure in chapter 1.  But in the chapters that follow, these elements of personal biography are subordinate to my focus on nursing practice through a cohort analysis.  Fleshing out the individual stories that undergirded such transformations – the   chronicles of strong, often overpowering emotions that took nurses to the point of physical or nervous collapse – is the stuff of biography and falls beyond the task I have set myself.  It suffices to recall that nurses, no less than the soldiers they cared for, fell victim to what, in the parlance of the war, was termed “shell shock,” even though medical and military personnel steadfastly refused to pin this label on them.  But most of the time the nurses’ descent into the horrific gave rise to adaptive strategies – compartmentalization, dissociation, psychic numbing, black humor – that enabled them to labor on in the service of their soldiers, their “boys.”.

It is with respect to the nurses’ shared ability to bracket their personal stories in the service of a nascent professionalism – a professionalism that segued into medical diagnosis and procedural caregiving far removed from the world of their training and prewar experience – that they reached their full stature.  In so doing, they provide an historical example, deeply moving, of the kind of self-overcoming for which we reserve the term “hero.”

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EASING PAIN ON THE WESTERN FRONT

American Nurses of the Great War and the Birth of Modern Nursing Practice

Paul E. Stepansky

McFarland & Co.     978-1476680019     2020     244pp.     19 photos     $39.95pbk.

Available now from Amazon 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remembering the Nurses of WWI (V)

“They were very pathetic, these shell shocked boys.”

[The fifth of a series of essays about the gallant nurses of World War I commemorating the centennial of America’s entry into the war on April 6, 1917]

Every war has mental casualties, but each war has its own way of understanding them.  Each war, that is, has its own nomenclature for what we now term “psychiatric diagnosis.”  To Napoleon’s Surgeon in Chief, Dominique-Jean Larrey, we owe the diagnosis nostalgie   (nostalgia); it characterized soldiers whose homesickness left them depressed and unable to fight.   This was in 1815.  During the American Civil War, nostalgia remained in vogue, but a new term, “irritable heart” (aka  “soldier’s heart” or “Da Costa’s Syndrome”) was coined just after the war to label soldiers whose uncontrollable shivering and trembling had been accompanied by rapid heart beat and difficulty breathing.  During the 10-week Spanish-American War of 1898, soldiers who broke down mentally amid heat, bugs, bullets, and rampant typhoid fever were diagnosed with “tropical weakness.”

And this brings us to World War I, the war that bequeathed the diagnosis of shell shock.  At first, the nurses of WWI were no less baffled by variable expressions of shell shock – most cases of which, it was learned, arose some distance from the exploding shells at the Front – than the doctors.  The term was coined in 1915 by the British physician and psychologist Charles Myers, then part of a volunteer medical unit in France.  Myers immediately realized the term was a misnomer:  he coined it after seeing three soldiers whose similar psychological symptoms followed the concussive impact of artillery shells bursting at close range, only to discover that many men with the same symptoms were no where near exploding shells.   In May, 1917, the American psychiatrist Thomas Salmon, with the approval of the War Department, traveled to England to observe how the British treated their shell shocked soldiers; he returned home convinced that shell shock was a real disorder, not to be taken for malingering, and a disorder that was amenable to psychological treatment.  Salmon was the Medical Director of the National Committee for Mental Hygiene, so his report to the Surgeon General carried weight, and the Army began making arrangements for treating the mental casualties that, he predicted, could flood overseas and stateside hospitals following America’s entry into the war.[1]

Nurses were unconcerned with the animated debate among physicians on the nature of shell shock.  Was it a kind of brain concussion that resulted from the blast force of exploding shells? A physiological response to prolonged fear?  A psychological reaction to the impact of industrial warfare?  A product of nervous shock analogous to  that suffered by victims of railway accidents in the later nineteenth century?   A Freudian-type “war neurosis”  that plugged into earlier traumas  that the soldier had suffered?  They did not care.  Theirs was the everyday world of distressed soldiers, whose florid symptoms overlaid profound anxiety and for whom the reliving of trauma and its aftermath occurred throughout the day.  Theirs was the world, that is, of management and containment.

A shell shocked soldier in a trench during the Somme offensive of September, 1916

The management part could be bemused, good-naturedly patronizing, a tad irritated.  Shell shock victims, after all, made unusual demands on nurses.  The patients were always falling out of bed and otherwise “shaking and stammering and looking depressed and scared.”  Simple tasks like serving meals could be a project, as attested to by the British nursing assistant  Grace Bignold, who, prior to becoming a  VAD in 1915, worked as an orderly at a London convalescent home.  There, she recalled,

One of the things I was told was that when I was serving meals . . . always to put the plate down very carefully in front of them and to let them see me do it.  If you so much as put a plate down in front of them in the ordinary way, when they weren’t looking, the noise made them almost jump through the roof – just the noise of a plate being put on a table with a cloth on it? [2]

Accommodation by the orderlies at mealtime paled alongside the constant burden on ward nurses who had to calm hospitalized shell shock soldiers when exploding shells and overhead bombs rocked the hospital, taking patients back to the Front and causing a recurrence of the anxiety attendant to what they had seen or done or had done to them or to others.  And both, perhaps, paled alongside the burden of nurses in the ambulance trains that transported the shell shocked out of the trenches or off the battlefield.  “It was a horrible thing,” wrote the British VAD and ambulance nurse, Clair Elise Tisdall,

because they sometimes used to get these attacks, rather like epileptic fits in a way.  They became quite unconscious, with violent shivering and shaking, and you had to keep them from banging themselves about too much until they came round again.  The great thing was to keep them from falling off the stretchers, and for that reason we used to take just one at a time in the ambulance. . . . these were the so-called milder cases; we didn’t carry the dangerous ones.  They always tried to keep that away from us and they came in a separate part of the train.”[3]

The latter were the “hopeless mental cases” destined, Tisdall recalled, for “a special place,” i.e., a mental hospital,  in England a “neurasthenic centre.” But how to tell the difference?  The line between “milder” and “severe” cases of shell shock was subjectively drawn and constantly fluctuating; soldiers who arrived in the hospital with some combination of headaches,  tremors, a stutter,  memory loss, and vivid flashback dreams might become psychosomatically blind, deaf or mute or develop paralyzed or spastic limbs after settling into base hospitals and the care of nurses.  In their diaries and letters home, the nurses’ characterizations were not only patronizing but sometimes unkind:  shock patients, often incontinent, were “very pathetic”;  they formed “one of the most pitiful groups” of soldiers.  Dorothea Crewdson referred to them as “dithery shell shocks” and “old doddering shell shocks.” A patient who without warning got out of bed and raced down the hall clad only in his nightshirt was a “dotty poor dear.”  “It is sad to see them,” wrote Edith Appleton.  “They dither like palsied old men, and talk all the time about their mates who were blown to bits, or their mates who were wounded and never brought in.  The whole scene is burnt into their brains and they can’t get rid of the sight of it.”[4]

It is in the containment aspects of their care of the shell shocked that the nurses evinced the same caring acceptance they brought to all their patients.  After, all, shell shocked patients, however they presented, were wounded soldiers, and their suffering was as real and intense as that of comrades with bodily wounds.  The nursing historian Christine Hallett, who writes of the WWI nurses with great sympathy and insight, credits nurses working with the shell shocked with an almost preternatural psychoanalytic sensibility in containing the trauma that underlay their symptoms.  The nurses, she claims, aligned themselves with the patients, however disruptive their outbursts and enactments, since they “sensed that insanity would be a ‘normal’ response for any man who fully realized the deliberateness of the destruction that had been unleashed on him.”  Hence, she continues,

Nurses conspired with their patients to ‘ignore’ or ‘forget’ the reality of warfare until it was safe to remember.  In this way they ameliorated the effect of the ‘psychic splintering’ caused by trauma.  They contained the effects of this defensive fragmentation – the ‘forgetting’ and the ‘denial’ – until patients were able to confront their memories, incorporate them as part of themselves and become ‘whole’ beings again.[5]

I follow Hallett in her insistence that nurses usually ignored the directive not to “spoil” shell shocked patients.  All too often, they let themselves get involved with them at the expense of maintaining professional distance.[6]  

But then the nurses were equally caring and equally prone to personal connection with all their patients, mental or not.  They were not psychotherapists, and the dizzying demands of their long days and nights did not permit empathic engagement in the psychoanalytic sense, beyond the all-too-human  realization that the shell shocked had experienced something so horrible as to require a gentleness, a lightness of touch, a willingness to accept strange adaptive defenses that, with the right kind of nursing,  might peel away slowly over time.  Here, for example, is one of Hallett’s examples of “emotional containment” on the part of  the Australian army nurse Elsie Steadman:

It was very interesting work, some of course could not move, others could not speak, some had lost their memory, and did not even know their own names, others again had very bad jerks and twitching.  Very careful handling these poor lads needed, for supposing a man was just finding his voice, to be spoken to in any way that was not gentle and quiet the man ‘was done,’ and you would have to start all over again to teach him to talk, the same things applied to walking, they must be allowed to take their time.”[7]

This sensitivity, this “very careful handling” of the shell shocked, was no different than the sensitivity of the mealtime orderlies, who knew to “put the plate down very carefully in front of them,” always making sure that the shell shocked saw them do it.  And of course there were accommodations out of the ordinary, a remarkable example of which comes from Julia Stimson, the American chief nurse of British Base Hospital 21 (and amateur violinist). Writing to her parents in late November, 1917, she related “an interesting little incident” that began when a patient knocked on her door and asked for the Matron:

He was so wobbly he almost had to lean up against the wall.  “Somebody told me,” he said, “that you had a violin.  I am a professional violinist and I have not touched a violin for five months, and today I couldn’t stand it any longer, so I got up out of bed to come and find you.”  I made him come in and sit down.  As it happened I had a new violin and bow, which had been bound for our embryo orchestra, here in my office.  The violin was not tuned up, but that didn’t matter.  The man had it in shape in no time and then he began to play and how he could play!  We let him take the violin down to his tent, and later sent him some of my music.  He was a shell shock, and all the evening and the next few days until he was sent to England he played to rapt audiences of fellow patients.[8]

With the shell shocked, the therapeutic gift of the WWI nurses resided less in their ability to empathize than in their acceptance that their patients had experienced horrors that could not be empathized with.  Their duty, their calling, was simply to stay with these soldiers in an accepting manner that coaxed them toward commonality among the wounded, the sense that their symptoms and the underlying terror were not only understandable but unexceptional and well within the realm of nursing care.  In this sense – in the sense of a daily willingness to be with these soldiers in all their bodily dysfunction, mental confusion, and florid symptomatic displays – the nurses strove to normalize shell shock for the shell shocked. After all, the shell shocked, however dithery, shaking, and stammering, were depressed and scared “only at times.”  Otherwise, continued Dorothea Crewdson, “they are very cheery and willing.”  Mary Stollard, a British nurse working  with shell shocked soldiers at a military hospital in Leeds, noted that many of the boys were very sensitive to being incontinent.

They’d say, ‘‘I’m  terribly sorry about it, Sister, it’s shaken me all over and I can’t control it.  Just imagine, to wet the bed at my age!”  I’d say, “We’ll see to that.  Don’t worry about it.”  I used to give them a bedpan in the locker beside them and keep it as quiet as possible.  Poor fellows, they were so embarrassed – especially the better-class men.”[9]

But such embarrassment was a relic of civilian life.  It had no place among battle-hardened nurses who coped daily with the sensory overload of trench warfare:  the overpowering stench of gangrenous infections and decaying flesh; the sight of mutilated soldiers without faces or portions of torso, not to mention missing arms and legs; the screams of gassed soldiers, blind and on fire and dying in unspeakable pain.  Alongside such things, how off-putting could incontinence be?  The fact is that shell shocked soldiers, no less than the nurses themselves, were warriors. Warriors are wounded and scarred in many ways; nurses themselves fell victim to shell shock, even if they were not officially diagnosed as such.[10]   Knowing full well that shell shocked soldiers declared physically unfit and shipped back home were often subject to stigma and humiliation,  Ellen La Motte offered this dismal prognosis for one who had lost the ability to walk and could no longer serve the nation:  “For many months he had faced death under the guns, a glorious death.  Now he was to face death in another form.  Not glorious, shameful.”[11]

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[1] Earl D. Bond, Thomas W. Salmon – Psychiatrist  (NY: Norton, 1950), 83-84.

[2] Julia C. Stimson, Finding Themselves:  The Letters of an American Army Chief Nurse in a British Hospital in France (NY: Macmillan, 1918), 41; Dorothea Crewdson, Dorothea’s War:  A First World War Nurse Tells her Story, ed. Richard Crewdson (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2013), loc 4383; Grace Bignold, in Lyn MacDonald, The Roses of No Man’s Land (London: Penguin, 1993), 233.

[3]  Claire Elise Tisdall, in MacDonald, Roses of No Man’s Land, 233-34.

[4] Mary Stollard, in MacDonald, Roses of No Man’s Land, 231-32; Stimson, Finding Themselves, 41; Crewdson, Dorothea’s War, loc 967; Edith Appleton, A Nurse at the Front:  The First World War Diaries, ed. R. Cowen (London:  Simon & Schuster UK, 2012), 184.

[5] Christine Hallett, Containing Trauma:  Nursing Work in the First World War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009), 163.

[6] Hallett, Containing Trauma, 165, 177.

[7] Hallett, Containing Trauma, 172-73.

[8] Stimson, Finding Themselves, 163.

[9] Crewdson, Dorothea’s War,  loc 4383; Stollard, in MacDonald, Roses of No Man’s Land, 232.

[10] E.g., Crewdson, Dorothea’s War, loc 4914; In “Blind,” Mary Borden writes of herself as “jerk[ing] like a machine out of order.  I was away now, and I seemed to be breaking to pieces.”  She was sent home as “tired.”  Mary Borden, The Forbidden Zone (London: Hesperus, 2008[1929], 103).  On the military’s unwillingness to diagnose women as “shell shocked,” see Hannah Groch-Begley, “The Forgotten Female Shell-Shock Victims of World War I,” The Atlantic, September 8, 2014 (https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/09/world-war-ones-forgotten-female-shell-shock-victims/378995).

[11] Ellen N. La Motte, The Backwash of War: The Human Wreckage of the Battlefield as Witnessed by an American Hospital Nurse (NY: Putnam’s, 1916), 239.

Copyright © 2017 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.  The author kindly requests that educators using his blog essays in their courses and seminars let him know via info[at]keynote-books.com.

An Irony of War

“There are two groups of people in warfare – those organized to inflict and those organized to repair wounds – and there is little doubt but that in all wars, and in this one in particular, the former have been better prepared for their jobs” (Milit. Surg., 38:601, 1916).  So observed Harvey Cushing, the founder of modern neurosurgery, a year before America’s entry into World War I.  Cushing’s judgment is just, and yet throughout history “those organized to repair wounds” have risen to the exigencies  of the war at hand.  In point of fact, warfare has spurred physicians, surgeons, and researchers to major, sometimes spectacular, advances, and their scientific and clinical victories are bequeathed  to civilian populations that inherit the peace.  Out of human destructiveness emerge potent new strategies of protection, remediation, and self-preservation.  Call it an irony of war.

Nor are these medical and surgical gifts limited to the era of modern warfare.  The French army surgeon Jean Louis Petit invented the screw tourniquet in 1718; it made possible leg amputation above the knee.  The Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century brought us the first field hospitals along with battlefield nursing and ambulances.  The latter were of course horse-drawn affairs, but they were exceedingly fast and maneuverable and were termed “flying ambulances.”  The principle of triage — treating the wounded, regardless of rank, according to severity of injury and urgency of need – is not a product of twentieth-century disasters.  It was devised by Dominique Jean Larrey, Napoleon’s surgeon-in-chief from 1797 to 1815.

The American Civil War witnessed the further development of field hospitals and the acceptance, often grudging, especially among southern surgeons, of female nurses tending to savaged male bodies.  Hospital-based training programs for nurses were a product of wartime experience.  Civil War surgeons themselves broached the idea shortly after the peace, and the first such programs opened  in New York, Boston, and New Haven hospitals in 1873.  The dawning appreciation of the relationship between sanitation and prevention of infection, which would blossom into the “sanitary science” of the 1870s and 1880s, was another Civil War legacy.

And then there were the advances, surgical and technological, in amputation.  They included the use of the flexible chain saw to spare nerves and muscles and even, in many cases of comminuted fracture, to avoid amputation entirely.  The development of more or less modern vascular ligation – developed on the battlefield to tie off major arteries extending from the stumps of severed limbs – is another achievement of Civil War surgeons.  Actually, they rediscovered ligation, since the French military surgeon Amboise Paré employed it following battlefield amputation in the mid-sixteenth century, and he in turn was reviving a practice employed in the Alexandrian Era of the fourth century B.C.

In 1900 Karl Landsteiner, a Viennese pathologist and immunologist, first described the ABO system of blood groups, founding the field of immunohematology.  As a result, World War I gave us blood banks that made possible blood transfusions among wounded soldiers in the Army Medical Corps in France.  The First World War also pushed medicine further along the path to modern wound management, including the treatment of cellulitic wound infections, i.e., bacterial skin infections that followed soft tissue trauma.  Battlefield surgeons were quick to appreciate the need for thorough wound debridement and delayed closure in treating contaminated war wounds.  The prevalence of central nervous system injuries – a tragic byproduct of trench warfare in which soldiers’ heads peered anxiously above the parapets  – led to “profound insights into central nervous system form and function.” The British neurologist Gordon Holmes provided elaborate descriptions of spinal transections (crosswise fractures) for every segment of the spinal cord, whereas Cushing, performing eight neurosurgeries a day, “rose to the challenge of refining the treatment of survivors of penetrating head wounds” (Arch. Neurol., 51:712, 1994).  His work from 1917 “lives today” (ANZ J. Surg., 74:75, 2004).

No less momentous was the development of reconstructive surgery by inventive surgeons (led by the New Zealand ENT surgeon Harold Gillies) and dentists (led by the French-American Charles Valadier) unwilling to accept the gross disfigurement of downed pilots who crawled away from smoking wreckages with their lives, but not their faces, intact.  A signal achievement of wartime experience with burn and gunshot victims was Gillies’s Plastic Surgery of the Face of 1920; another was the founding of the American Association of Plastic Surgeons a year later.  After the war, be it noted, the pioneering reconstructive surgeons refused to place their techniques at the disposal of healthy women (and less frequently healthy men) desirous of facial enhancement; reconstructive facial surgery went into short-lived hibernation.  One reason reconstructive surgeons morphed into cosmetic surgeons was the psychiatrization of facial imperfection via Freudian and especially Adlerian notions of the “inferiority complex,” with its allegedly life-deforming ramifications.  So nose jobs became all the rage in the 1930s, to be joined by facelifts in the postwar 40s. (Elizabeth Haiken’s book Venus Envy: A History of Cosmetic Surgery [1997] is illuminating on all these issues.)

The advances of World War II are legion.  Among the most significant was the development or significant improvement of 10 of the 28 vaccine-preventable diseases identified in the twentieth century (J. Pub. Health Pol., 27:38, 2006);  new vaccines for influenza, pneumococcal pneumonia, and plague were among them.   There were also new treatments for malaria and the mass production of penicillin in time for D-Day.  It was during WWII that American scientists learned to separate blood plasma into its constituents (albumin, globulins, and clotting factors), an essential advance in the treatment of shock and control of bleeding.

No less staggering were the surgical advances that occurred during the war. Hugh Cairns, Cushing’s favorite student, developed techniques for the repair of the skull base and laid the foundation of modern craniofacial surgery by bringing together neurosurgeons, plastic surgeons, and ophthalmic surgeons in mobile units referred to as “the trinity.”   There were also major advances in fracture and wound care along with the development of hand surgery as a surgical specialty.   Wartime treatment experience with extreme stress, battlefield trauma, and somatization (then termed, in Freudian parlance, “conversion reactions”) paved the way for the blossoming of psychosomatic medicine in the 1950s and 1960s.

The drum roll hardly ends with World War II.  Korea gave us the first air ambulance service.  Vietnam gave us Huey helicopters for evacuation of wounded soldiers.  (Now all trauma centers have heliports.)  Prior to evacuation, these soldiers received advanced, often life-saving, care from medical corpsmen who opened surgical airways and performed thoracic needle decompressions and shock resuscitation; thus was born our modern system of prehospital emergency care by onsite EMTs and paramedics.  When these corpsmen returned to the States, they formed the original candidate pool for Physician Assistant training programs, the first of which opened its doors at Duke University Medical Center in 1965.  Vietnam also gave us major advances in vascular surgery, recorded for surgical posterity in the “Vietnam Vascular Registry,” a database with records of over 8000 vascular wound cases contributed by over 600 battlefield surgeons.

The medical and surgical yield of recent and ongoing wars in the Persian Gulf will be recorded in years to come.  Already, these wars have provided two advances for which all may give thanks:  portable intensive care units (“Life Support for Trauma and Transport”) and Hem-Con bandages.  The latter, made from extract of shrimp cells, stop severe bleeding instantaneously.

Now, of course, with another century of war under our belt and the ability to play computer-assisted war games, we are better able to envision the horrific possibilities of wars yet to come.  In the years leading up to World War I, American surgeons – even those, like Harvey Cushing, who braced themselves for war – had no idea of the human wreckage they would encounter in French field hospitals.  Their working knowledge of war wounds relied on the Boer War (1899-1900), a distinctly nineteenth-century affair, militarily speaking, fought in the desert of South Africa, not in trenches in the overly fertilized, bacteria-saturated soil of France.  Now military planners can turn to databases that gather together the medical-surgical lessons of two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and any number of regional conflicts.

Military simulations have already been broadened to include political and social factors.  But military planners should also be alert to possibilities of mutilation, disfigurement, multiple-organ damage, and drug-resistant infection only dimly imagined.  Perhaps they can broaden their simulations to include the medical and surgical contingencies of future wars and get bench scientists, clinical researchers, and surgeons to work on them right away.  Lucky us.

Copyright © 2012 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.