Tag Archives: WWI medicine

Remembering the Nurses of WWI (IV)

“Mustard gas burns.  Terrific suffering.”

 [The fourth 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]

Now, sadly, chemical weapons are back in the news.  But large-scale chemical warfare  reaches back over a century.   In WWI, Germany released 5,730 cylinders of chlorine gas across a four-mile stretch of no-man’s-land into the Allied lines during the Second Battle of Ypres in April, 1915. Thus the birth of chemical warfare.  Britain replied in kind, releasing cylinders of chlorine gas during the Battle of Loos the following summer, and  Germany upped the horror in July, 1917, delivering artillery shells filled with dichlor-ethyl-sulphide or “mustard gas” just prior to the Third Battle of Ypres.

Chlorine gas attacked the airways.  Severe respiratory swelling and inflammation killed many instantly and the rest struggled to nearby casualty clearing stations with acute congestion of the lungs, pneumonia, and blindness.  Soldiers who had inhaled the most gas arrived  with heavy discharge of a frothy yellow fluid from their noses and mouths as they drowned in their own secretions.  For the rest, partial suffocation persisted for days, and long-term survivors had permanent lung damage, chronic bronchitis, and occasionally heart failure.  Mustard gas burned the skin and respiratory tract, stripping the mucous membrane off the bronchial tubes and causing violent inflammation of the eyes.  Victims were left in excruciating pain and utterly helpless.[1]

Nurses, no less than physicians, were initially confused about the nature of the gas and the severity of its effects.[2]  But they quickly came up to speed and realized that soldiers suffering from poison gas posed a nursing challenge no less formidable than those dying from gangrenous wounds.  Nurses were accustomed to losing patients, but not to being powerless to provide comfort care, to  ease  patients’ agony during their final days.  How to nurse on when nursing was unavailing, when the burns were so terrible that “nothing seems to give relief”?[3]

WWI nurses in gas masks treat soldiers after a gas attack

Of course, nurses did what little they could.  Inflamed eyes were repeatedly irrigated with alkaline solution.  Respirators soaked in hyposulphate could be provided to patients able to use them.  At American Base Hospital 32, soldiers who had breathed in mustard gas were given a mixture of guiacol, camphor, menthol, oil of thyme, and eucalyptus that caused them to expectorate inflammatory material.   According to Maude Essig, an American Red Cross Nurse who worked at the hospital, the nurses helped devise it.[4]

According to Essig, the mixture provided some temporary relief to soldiers with burning throats and mouths.  But nurses otherwise echoed a shared sense of impotence when it came to making gassed patients comfortable.  During the Second Battle of Ypres, when chlorine gas was first used by the Germans, Canadian nurse Agnes Warner recalled the initial wave of gassed troops:  “There they lay, fully sensible, choking, suffocating, dying in horrible agonies.  We did what we could, but the best treatment for such cases had yet to be discovered, and we felt almost powerless.”[5]   Shirley Millard was graphic in describing the severe burn patients who rendered nursing futile.  “Gas cases are terrible,” she wrote at war’s end in November, 1918.

They cannot breathe lying down or sitting up.  They just struggle for breath, but nothing can be done . . . their lungs are gone . . . literally burnt out.  Some with their eyes and faces entirely eaten away by the gas, and bodies covered with first degree burns.  We try to relieve them by pouring oil on them.  They cannot be bandaged or even touched.[6]

Whereas soldiers with even the worst of battlefield wounds usually did not complain,  the gas cases “invariably are beyond endurance and they cannot help crying out.” Millard’s judgment was affirmed by many others.  Maude Essig wrote of a “star patient,” one Leo Moquinn, who “was terribly burned with mustard gas while carrying a pal of his three-quarters of a mile to safety after the gas attack.  Except for his back, she added, his “entire body is one third-degree burn.  He cannot see and has  developed pneumonia and he is delirious.”[7]  Such were the burn patients.

Essig’s reference to pneumonia alludes to the multitude of infectious diseases that accompanied battlefield wounds and complicated (or prevented) recovery. Pneumonia could be rampant during winter months; gangrene and tetanus were prevalent year round.  Typhoid was partially  controlled by the antityphoid serum injections troops received, usually prior to disembarkation but otherwise in the reception huts of clearing stations and field hospitals. But bronchitis, trench fever, diphtheria, cholera, dysentery, meningitis, measles, mumps, erysipelas,[8] and, finally, influenza, were not.  Nurses recorded deaths resulting from various combinations of the foregoing, such as Edith Appleton’s “poor little boy, Kerr,” who died of gas, pneumonia, and bronchitis.[9]

Infected shrapnel and gunshot wounds could be irrigated or bathed continuously in antiseptics, first developed in the 1870s and packed in sterile dressings available in sealed paper packages since 1893.[10]  But in the preantibiotic era, nursing care of systemic infections was limited to the same palliatives we employ today:  rest, warmth, hydration, nutrition, aspirin (and, back then, quinine), all amplified by the nurse’s caring, maternal presence.

Trench foot, a combination of fungal infection, frostbite, and poor circulation, was endemic during the winter months, when soldiers lived in trenches flooded with icy water, often waist-high, for days on end.  They struggled into clearing stations with feet that were “hideously swollen and purple,” feet “that were “raw with broken blisters and were wrapped in muddy, dripping bandages.”[11] But trench feet, however disabling, at least  permitted more active measures.   In addition to giving morphine, there was a treatment protocol to follow, such as this one at a British Military Hospital in the winter of 1917:

We had to rub their feet every morning and every evening with warm olive oil for about a quarter of an hour or so, massage it well in and wrap their feet in cotton wool and oiled silk – all sorts of  things just to keep them warm – and then we put big fisherman’s socks on them.  Their feet were absolutely white, swollen up and dead.  Some of their toes dropped off with it, and their feet looked dreadful.  We would say, ‘I’ll stick a pin in you.  Can you feel it?”  Whenever they did feel the pin-prick we knew that life was coming back, and then we’d see a little bit of pink come up and everybody in the ward would cheer.”[12]

It is the dizzying  confluence of multiple battlefield injuries, many gangrenous, with the effects of poison gas and intercurrent infectious diseases that threatened to, and occasionally did,  overwhelm the WWI nurses.  Reading their diaries and memoirs, one sees time and again how the nurses’ calling, amplified by the camaraderie of other nurses, surgeons, and orderlies who felt similarly called, overpowered resignation and despair.  In a diary entry of September 14, 1916,  Kate Luard referred to the “very special nursing” required by soldiers with multiple severe injuries.  She had in mind

The man with two broken arms has also a wound in the knee – joint in a splint – and has had his left eye removed today.  He is nearly crazy.  Another man has compound fractures of both legs, one arm, and head, and is quite sensible.  Another has both legs amputated, and a compound fracture of [the] arm.  These people – as you may imagine – need very special nursing.[13]

If one adds to such clusters the serious general infections that often accompanied battlefield injuries, one has some sense of what nurses were up against, and just how special their nursing had to be.   When influenza, the deadly Spanish flu, began to swamp clearing stations and hospitals in the spring of 1918, nurses simply added it to the list of challenges to be met with the resources at hand. And they did so in the knowledge that as many as half of the infected would die.[14]  Beatrice Hopkinson, a British auxiliary nurse, recorded the new protocol developed at her General Hospital in St. Omer to meet the rush of influenza patients:

During those early days of the flu the treatment was to strip the patients in one tent, their clothing going immediately to the fumigator.  Then, the patient was bathed in disinfectant and taken to the different wards.  Some of the patients were very ill and died with pneumonia after a few days.[15]

The early days of the pandemic gave way to the later days, and after the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, nurses occasionally felt boredom, even mild malaise, when the demands of “special nursing” relented and they increasingly found themselves nursing “mostly mild influenza cases.”[16]

I admire the nurses of WWI because they did what was required of them absent any preexisting sense of what they could be required to do, absent, that is,  anything approaching a  “job description.” Without medical residents, internists, and infectious disease specialists to fall back on, they collapsed specialism into global care-giving identities.  This meant they managed multiple war wounds and  intercurrent infections, prioritizing among them and continuously adjusting treatment goals in the manner of highly skilled primary care physicians.  By the same token, they realized the importance of compassion in the face of ameliorative impotence.  Somehow they found  time to be present, to slip into a ward with a soldier dying of gas gangrene every few minutes “to do something perfectly useless that might perhaps give a ray of comfort.”[17]

Ironically, given the environment in which they labored and their “patient population” of soldiers in extremis, the nurses embodied the values of primary care medicine, since they took upon themselves the role of primary caregivers obligated to stay with their patients through thick and thin, to summon senior colleagues and surgeons as needed, and to ease life transitions, whether to recovery,  convalescence, lifelong disability, or death.[18]   And they did so whatever the weight of multiple assaults on their own bodily and mental integrity.

Nurses, technically noncombatants, suffered alongside the troops.  During rushes, their clearing stations, hospitals, and living quarters were under land and air assault and occasionally took direct hits.  They contracted infectious diseases, especially flu,[19] during which they usually carried on with the aid of simple analgesics until they felt better or worse.  When Helen Boylston became feverish in November, 1918, a symptom she attributed to diphtheria, she braced herself for a long-awaited evening dance with “quantities of quinine and finally a stiff dose of whiskey, and I felt ready for anything.” But not ready enough, it turned out.  She collapsed at the dance with a bad chill and had to be carried to her bed.  When she went on duty the following day, she became delirious in the ward and was lugged off by an orderly and subsequently seen by a doctor. “So here I am,” she wrote in her diary.  “I’ve developed a heart and a liver, and am as yellow as a cow-lily.  I have to lie flat on my back and be fed.  For three days I lay motionless all day long, not caring to move or to speak, I was so tired.”  Boylston was soon joined by a second nurse with diphtheria, placing the camp “in a panic,” with every staff member now given daily throat cultures.[20]

Despite training in the use of gas masks in the event of direct shelling, mask-less nurses suffered the effects of poison gas from daily proximity to patients on whom the shells had landed.  Their own vulnerability to gas attack and attenuated exposure to the poison lent special intensity to their care of burn victims.  They understood, with Maude Essig, that mustard gas burns indeed meant “terrific suffering.”[21]  Whether infected or poisoned, they usually labored on until they collapsed or were so near collapse that medical colleagues ordered them out of the wards, whether to bed, to a general hospital for treatment, or to a nearby convalescent homes for recuperation and a desperately needed “time out.”[22]

Civil War nurses too eased transitions to death, but their nursing goal during a soldier’s final days was to reconfigure mortal battlefield injury into the promise of a beneficent afterlife.   So they stayed with the dying, soliciting final confessions of sinful living, allowing soldiers to reminisce and reflect, and soliciting (and writing down) words of comfort  to sustain family members in believing that their soldier had died a “good death.”[23]  World War II, on the other hand, witnessed the development of new vaccines, a national blood bank program, the widespread availability of sulfa drugs in 1941 and penicillin in 1944, major advances in the control of shock and bleeding and in battlefield surgery, and much greater speed of evacuation of the seriously wounded to European and stateside base hospitals.  Taken together these advances created a buffer between nurses and the prolonged witnessing  of soldiers dying in unrelievable pain.

It was the nurses of WWI who took it on the chin.  They could not sustain themselves and their patients with the naturalistic view of the afterlife popular during the Civil War.[24]  Nor did they have the benefit of more “modern” technology and organization to shield them, if only somewhat, from the experiential onslaught of  dying soldiers.   It was not death per se but the agony of dying – from infected battle wounds and/or systemic infections,  gas gangrene, chlorine and mustard gas,  rushed amputations followed by reinfection and blood loss –  that took them to their own existential no-man’s-land, the kind we encounter in the writings of Mary Borden and Ellen LaMotte.

In the summer of 1917, the nurses at No. 12 General Hospital on the outskirts of Rouen struggled with a gas victim whose paroxysms of coughing came every minute and a half “by the clock,” and who had not slept in four days.  To quiet him, they rigged up a croup tent under which they took turns holding a small stove that heated a croup kettle from which the soldier could breathe the steam.  When sleep finally came, they were “ready to get down on their knees in gratitude, his anguish had been so terrible to watch.”  To their head nurse, Julia Stimson, they remarked that “they could not wish the Germans any greater unhappiness than to have them have to witness the sufferings of a man like that and know that they had been the cause of it.”[25]

It was bearing witness to unrelievable suffering that was the worst assault borne by the nurses.  “It is dreadful to be impotent, to stand by grievously stricken men it is impossible to help, to see the death-sweat gathering on young faces, to have no means of easing their last moments.  This is the nearest to Hell I have yet been.”  This is the voice of an anonymous British Red Cross nurse, unsettled by the dying Belgium soldiers she encountered on ambulance runs in the fields of West Flanders in the winter of 1915.  The American nurses at No. 12 General Hospital brushed up against this same hell, and they could think of no greater punishment for enemy combatants than to witness what they witnessed, often for weeks on end.  And yet the nurses of WWI were not stymied by seeming impotence in the face of pain.  They labored on to the breaking point in the service of soldiers who, all too often, were already broken.  This makes them warriors of care and, in a devotion to patients that was literally and not metaphorically self-less, heroes of the first rank.

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[1] Christine E. Hallett, Veiled Warriors:  Allied Nurses of the First World War (Oxford: OUP, 2014), 79-80, 203.

[2] E.g., Julia C. Stimson, Finding Themselves: The Letters of an American Army Chief Nurse in a British Hospital in France (NY: Macmillan, 1918), 80; John & Caroline Stevens, eds., Unknown Warriors:  The Letters of Kate Luard, RRC and Bar, Nursing Sister in France 1914-1918 (Stroud: History Press, 2014), loc 1945.

[3] Maude Frances Essig, My Trip with Uncle Sam, 1917-1919:  How We Won World War I, unpublished journal written during the summer, 1919, entry of March 24, 1918.

[4] Agnes Warner, My Beloved Poilus’ (St. John: Barnes, 1917), loc 861.

[5] Warner, My Beloved Poilus’ , loc 814.

[6] Shirley Millard, I Saw Them Die: Diary and Recollections (New Orleans, LA: Quid Pro, 2011), loc 514.

[7] Essig, My Trip with Uncle Sam,  entry of March 24, 1918.

[8] Erysipelas is an acute bacterial infection of the upper dermis, usually of the arms, legs, and/or face, that is accompanied by red swollen rashes.  Without antibiotic treatment, It can spread through the blood stream and cause sepsis.

[9] Edith Appleton, A Nurse at the Front:  The First World War Diaries, ed. R. Cowen (London:  Simon & Schuster UK, 2012), 111.

[10] Rodney D. Sinclair & Terence J. Ryan, “A Great War for Antiseptics,” Australas. J. Dermatol, 34:115-118, 1993.  These nineteenth-century antiseptics included salicylic, thymol, Eucalyptus oil, aluminum acetate, and boric acid.

[11] Helen Dore Boylston, Sister: The War Diary of a Nurse (NY: Ives Washburn, 1927), loc 154.

[12] Kathleen Yarwood (VAD, Dearnley Military Hospital), in Lyn MacDonald, The Roses of No Man’s Land (London: Penguin, 1993 [1980]), 197-198.

[13] Luard, Letters, loc 1245.

[14] Millard, I Saw Them Die, loc 472.

[15] Beatrice Hopkinson, Nursing through Shot & Shell: A Great War Nurse’s Story, ed. Vivien Newman (South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword, 2014), loc 1999.

[16] Hopkinson, Nursing Through Shot & Shell, loc 2609.

[17] [Kate Norman Derr] “Mademoiselle Miss”: Letters from an American Girl Serving with the Rank of Lieutenant in a French Army Hospital at the Front, preface by Richard C. Cabot (Boston:  Butterfield, 1916), 76-77.

[18] For an exposition of these values and how they gained expression in American medicine in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, extending through “general practice” of the 1950s and ’60s, see Paul E. Stepansky, In the Hands of Doctors:  Touch and Trust in Medical Care (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2016).

[19] “The flu is back again and everybody has it, including me.  I’ve run a temperature of one hundred and two for three days, can hardly breathe, and have to sleep on four pillows at night.” Boylston, Sister, loc 630.

[20] Boylston, Sister, loc 1350, 1357.

[21] Essig, My Trip with Uncle Sam, entry of March 23, 1918.

[22] E.g., Luard, Letters, loc 1247:  “Sister D, the Mother of all the Abdominals, has her marching orders and goes down to Rouen to a General Hospital tomorrow.  Her loss is irreparable.”  Edith Appleton  recounts taking care of three sick nurses and a sick VAD at one time:  “I have begun to feel like a perpetual night nurse to the sick sisters as I have another one to look after tonight with an abscess in her ear”(A Nurse at the Front, p. 123).  Maude Essig contracted erysipelas in the spring of 1918 and reported feeling “awfully sick” the following fall, when she relied on “quinine and aspirin in large doses” to keep going (My Trip with Uncle Sam, entries of April 9, 1918, April 14, 1918, and October 27, 1918).

[23] Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering:  Death and The American Civil War (New York: Vintage, 2008), chapter 1.

[24] Faust, Republic of Suffering, pp. 178, 187.

[25] Stimson, Finding Themselves, pp. 80-81.

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.

Remembering the Nurses of WW I (II)

“saving bits from the wreckage”

[The second 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]

The term “blood bath” is always used metaphorically, even in its wartime sense of  a bloody massacre in which lives are lost.   Often it is used more loosely still, as in the crushing of opponents in sports or business or the purging of employees at a company.  “There Could Be a Bloodbath in Sports Media” reads one headline.[1]

For World War I nurses working in Casualty Clearing Stations (CCSs) and field hospitals on the Western Front, however,  blood bath could take on a startling literality.  Here is Beatrice Hopkinson writing in the fall of 1917 at the height of the fourth battle of Ypres (Passchendaele), after a general hospital close to her own took a direct hit.   She and an orderly began washing sheets and bedding of the bombed-out hospital in a big bath tub:  “Soon we seemed to be dabbling in a sea of blood.  When the lights were allowed on we looked at one another and we, too, looked as though we had been in a slaughterhouse.  Our clothing was blood stained up to our chins; arms and faces too.”  Things could be worse still in the operating room, which during major rushes became “a slaughter house,” a blood bath where ambulance drivers, aiding the exhausted nurses, “would seize a mop and pail and swipe up some of the blood from the sloppy floor, or even hold a leg or arm while it was sawn off.”[2]

Hours before the fate of wounded soldiers was decided, it was nurses – not emergency room physicians or combat-trained EMS providers – who triaged incoming wounded, determining which soldiers required emergency treatment for shock; which immediate surgery; which a ward bed to sleep and await treatment; and which quiet removal to the moribund tent to die.  Surgeons, who during battles might be operating 12-14 hours a day, had nothing to do with the process.  It fell to the trained nurses, the Sisters, to deploy what resources they had to do the sorting, and then to  stabilize as quickly as possible those wounded who could be stabilized.

What resources could they summon?  How, for example, did they identify wounded soldiers in shock?  Absent blood pressure meters and stethoscopes, much less lab studies and scans, they relied on their hands; their hands became instruments of differential diagnosis.  Here is Mary Borden’s powerful rendering of her work in the reception hut of a Belgium Casualty Clearing Station:

It was my business to sort out the wounded as they were brought in from the ambulances and to keep them from dying before they got to the operating rooms:  it was my business to sort out the nearly dying from the dying.  I was there to sort them out and tell how fast life was ebbing in them.  Life was leaking away in all of them; but with some there was no hurry, with others it was a case of minutes. . . . My hand could tell of itself one kind of cold from another.  They were all half-frozen when they arrived, but the chill of their icy flesh wasn’t the same as the cold inside them when life was almost ebbed away.  My hands could instantly tell the difference between the cold of the harsh bitter night and the stealthy cold of death.  Then there was another thing, a small fluttering thing.  I didn’t think about it or count it.  My fingers felt it.  I was in a dream, led this way and that by my cute eyes and hands that did many things, and, seemed to know what to do.[3]

Thus the hands-on method of recognizing what was termed, in the idiom of the time,  “wound shock.”  For soldiers who arrived off the battlefield in shock, it was nurses who sought to stabilize them by mastering the complicated procedure of pumping saline solution either subcutaneously or intravenously.  Why complicated?  The patients had to be kept warm, with saline kept at 120 degrees and air kept out of the tubes.  And the entire procedure had to be performed aseptically in huts or tents that, depending on the season, could be stifling or freezing.

Of course, soldiers off the Front might bleed out even before shock set in.  Blood transfusions were not available in WWI until the United States entered the war in 1917, bringing with it transfusion advocates like Boston’s Oswald Robertson, who was invited to British field hospitals to teach transfusion technique and also to show how citrated blood collected from Type O (universal) donors could be stored and shipped.  But even in large base hospitals, transfusion remained “a complicated job under the very best of circumstances.”[4]  It was never an option in most reception huts of CCSs and field hospitals.  So nurses managed hemorrhage with what they had:  artery compression, tourniquets, and a variety of constrictive bandages.  Skill and reaction time often determined whether soldiers even made it to the surgeons.  Following what stabilization the nurses could provide, surgical cases were rushed to the X-ray hut and then to the attached “theatre hut.” There surgeons relied on still other nurses, the “theatre sisters,” to assist them at the operating table.

Nurses’ role as surgical assistants usually continued  in the operating theatres of the  base hospitals to which survivors were subsequently sent for more extensive repair.  In the chaotic overflow of wounded that followed major battles, when as many as seven operating tables might be in continuous use around the clock for two weeks, they really had no choice.  “In ten days,” reported Helen Boylston from her front line field hospital in late March, 1917, “we have admitted four thousand eight hundred and fifty-three wounded, sent four thousand to Blighty [England], have done nine hundred and thirty-five operations.”  And then, with obvious pride,  “– and only twelve patients have died.”[5]

“One doctor and one nurse work at each table,” Julia Stimson wrote her parents from Base Hospital 21 near Rouen several months later,

and you can imagine what surgical work the nurse has to do, no mere handing of instruments and sponges, but sewing and tying up and putting in drains while the doctor takes the next piece of shell out of another place.  Than after fourteen hours of this, with freezing feet, to a meal of tea and bread and jam, and off to rest if you can in a wet bell tent in a damp bed without sheets, after a wash with a cupful of water.[6]

Even the auxiliary nurses were co-opted for surgical duty.  Kate Norman Derr, the well-off daughter of a former Medical Director in the U.S. Navy, was studying art in France when war broke out in 1914.  Resolved to aid the French cause, she volunteered at local hospitals before earning a nursing certificate from the French Red Cross.  In September, 1915 she reported to a French field hospital in the Marne Valley where, assigned to the operating ward, she assisted the surgeon in the 25 or more operations performed daily.  Horrified by the wounds she encountered, she nonetheless relished her newfound surgical identity.  “I think you would sicken with fright if you could see the operations that a poor nurse is called upon to perform,” she wrote her family, referring to “the putting in of drains, the washing of wounds so huge and ghastly as to make one marvel at the endurance that is man’s, the digging about for bits of shrapnel.  I assure you that the word responsibility takes a special meaning here.” For Derr, it was the struggle itself, “the sense that one is saving bits from the wreckage,” that shoved aside the sense of being “mastered by the unutterable woe.”[7]

Surgical technique was taught by surgeons who then relegated certain aspects of complex multi-wound operations to the nurses.  Shell fragments and shrapnel often lodged in different parts of a soldier’s body, in which case surgeons concentrated on the most penetrative, life threatening wounds while the nurses, forceps in hand, dealt with the more manageable, if far from minor, wounds.  The complex wound management that followed surgery, on the other hand, was almost entirely in the nurses’ hands.  It began once more in reception huts, where nurses determined which wounds required a surgeon’s attention and which they could handle themselves.  For smaller wounds – the term is relative – nursing care became surgical care:  nurses irrigated wound beds with saline solution and then debrided the wounds, using sterile probes to locate and remove shrapnel, bone fragments, embedded clothing, and debris.  Finally, they dressed the wound with the antiseptics then available – iodine, carbolic acid, hydrogen peroxide, perchloride of mercury, sodium hypochlorite, boracic acid, salicylic acid, chloride of zinc, potassium permaganate, either alone or in combination, in liquid or paste form.  Given the plethora of options and toxicity of the more effective antiseptics, choosing the optimal dressing for a particular soldier was no simple matter.

For soldiers with large and infected open wounds – the “gaping wounds” or “horribly bad wounds” or  “wounds so huge and ghastly of which the nurses wrote[8] – it was nurses who mastered the intricacies of the novel and highly effective Carrel-Dakin irrigation method, which saved countless lives and limbs.  Here a weak solution of sodium hypochlorite continuously circulated in the wound via a complicated setup in which a glass container fixed at the head of the bed fed tubes with four or five separate nozzles, each connected to another small rubber tube packed into a different part of the wound.  The whole affair was held in place with bandages and an adjustable clamp on the main tube to regulate the amount of antiseptic fed into the wound.[9]

Madame Carrel demonstrating the Carrel-Dakin method in a French field hospital in 1917

In cases of compound fracture, nurses themselves usually followed cleaning, irrigation, debridement, and wound dressings with splinting.  Back on the ward, with or without a surgeon’s assistance, they began Carrel-Dakin treatment and monitored the fractures, alert, for example, to obstructed circulation.  Taking these nursing activities in their totality, Christine Hallett has every reason to conclude that WWI nurses emerged from their European tours as wound care practitioners, adding that, in the rushes that  followed major battles, professional boundaries dissolved and their work merged with that of surgeons.[10]

Nurses of the Civil War were no less heroic, if in a different way.   They were heroic simply in overcoming the resistance of surgeons and military officers to their presence right off the battlefield, exposed to the naked bodies of wounded men.  They were heroic in battling corrupt quartermasters and stewards who withheld supplies and food parcels from the wounded, not to mention racist orderlies who brutalized the wounded, especially African-Americans.  And they were heroic in providing comfort care in the tradition of Florence Nightingale, struggling against the system to keep the wounded dry, warm, and adequately fed, “mothering” them with the same compassion as their granddaughters on the Front.

But Civil War nursing lacked the procedural underpinnings of Great War nursing.  There was no “scientific nursing” to do because scientific nursing only emerged after the war.  The authority they achieved was moral and occasionally administrative.  In the latter cases, when nurses became powerful Head Matrons and even founders of their own field hospitals, their authority was typically wrestled from surgeons and officers who never stopped hoping they would pack up and go home.  Nurses from elite families – Hannah Ropes, Sophronia Bucklin, Kate Cumming, Clara Barton – sounded off and got results.  But the results were moral, not professional, victories.  There was no system of triaging for nurses to implement; no protocol in place for cleaning and irrigating infected wounds with saline solution before dressing them with potent antiseptics.  Nor were Civil War nurses trained to perform minor surgery in reception tents or to assist surgeons in the operating tent.  Very occasionally, a Civil War nurse would rise above the morale-sapping gender prejudice of her camp and find herself alongside an operating surgeon, but she was the heroic exception to the rule.

The heroism of the nurses of WWI has to do with the manner in which they rose to their historical moment, bringing into their operational domain major developments in scientific medicine of the past half century.  Consider only the birth of bacteriology; the derivative understanding of antisepsis, asepsis, and sterilization; the development of antiseptics and serum therapy; and major advances in wound management and surgical technique.  These developments, conjoined in a combat workplace that relied on collegial staff relationships, enlarged nurses’ responsibilities in a procedural direction.  Unlike Civil War nurses, the nurses of World War I initiated medical treatments and performed medical procedures, and they did so without abandoning their traditional obligation to provide care that was calming, comforting, and reassuring.  Indeed, with the catastrophic wounding of body and mind made possible by World War I weaponry, the provision of comfort often deepened into supportive psychotherapy and end of life counseling.  Psychiatric nursing was born in the CCSs and field hospitals of WWI.  The well-trained nurse practitioners of today, empowered in many states to practice medicine (or is it “medicalized” nursing?) with little or no medical supervision, have nothing on their gallant forebears of a century ago.

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[1] http://thebiglead.com/2015/11/18/fanduel-draftkings-commercials-new-york-attorney-general.

[2] Beatrice Hopkinson, Nursing through Shot & Shell: A Great War Nurse’s Story, ed. Vivien Newman (South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword, 2014), loc 1434; N.A.,  A War Nurse’s Diary: Sketches from a Belgian Field Hospital (Cornwall, UK: Diggory, 2005), loc 805-820.

[3] Mary Borden, The Forbidden Zone (ed. H. Hutchison (London: Hesperus[1928] 2008), 95-96.

[4] Julia C. Stimson, Finding Themselves: The Letters of an American Army Chief Nurse in a British Hospital in France (NY: Macmillan, 1918), 123.

[5] Helen Dore Boylston, Sister: The War Diary of a Nurse (NY: Washburn, 1927), loc 497.

[6] Stimson, Finding Themselves, 142.

[7] Kate Norman Derr, “Mademoiselle Miss”:  Letters from an American Girl Serving with the Rank of Lieutenant in a French Army Hospital at the Front, preface by Richard C. Cabot (Boston: Butterfield, 1916), 33.  My great thanks to Alan Kohuth for sending me his original copy of Dere’s letters.

[8] For example, Edith Appleton, A Nurse at the Front:  The First World War Diaries, ed. R. Cowen (London:  Simon & Schuster UK, 2012), 161, 203; Helen Dore Boylston, Sister: The War Diary of a Nurse (NY:  Washburn, 1927), loc 463; Derr, “Mademoiselle Miss,” 33.

[9] The Carrel-Dakin method was devised by Alexis Carrel, a French surgeon, and Henry Dakin, an English chemist, who met in the lab of a field hospital near the forest of Compiegne in France in late 1914.  Carrel developed the solution and Dakin devised the apparatus to deliver it.  The components of the solution, incidentally, had to be combined in a precise ratio to provide wound sterilization without causing tissue irritation – another procedural feat of the WWI nurses, who prepared and tested every batch of solution from scratch.  Their task was greatly simplified in 1917, when Johnson & Johnson of New Brunswick, New Jersey began producing the components in sealed ampoules and vials in the prescribed ratios.  Successful use of the method was reported in several articles in the British Medical Journal during the final years of the war.  One in particular paid tribute to the Sisters, “whose careful attention to detail largely contributed to the success obtained in the use of the Carrel-Dakin method.”  J. S. Dunne, “Notes on Surgical Work in a General Hospital – With Special Reference to the Carrel-Dakin Method of Treatment,” BMJ, 2:283-284, 1918, quoted at 284.

[10] Christine E. Hallett, Containing Trauma:  Nursing Work in the First World War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009), 56-59, 46.  Anyone writing about nursing in World War I owes an enormous debt to Hallett, whose two exemplary studies, Containing Trauma (op. cit.) and Veiled Warriors: Allied Nurses of the First World War (NY: OUP, 2014) provide far greater detail of each of the nursing activities I touch on here.

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.