War and Medicine

Caring for the sick and wounded in the Great War was one of its greatest challenges. It involved not only the mobilisation of existing trained doctors, nurses and orderlies, but the training of new staff, including civilian women who volunteered in their thousands to work in different capacities in dressing stations and hospitals. The new circumstances of trench warfare, and delays in transporting soldiers to hospitals, led some hospital equipment to become mobile for the first time: Marie Curie developed mobile X-ray units for the Western Front, and some blood transfusions were performed on the battlefield. The large numbers of amputees and facially disfigured soldiers also led to innovations in plastic surgery and prosthetics. Disease remained the biggest killer on some fronts, and troop quarters and movements helped the deadly influenza epidemic of 1918 – 1920 to spread.

The war also saw the coining of a neologism – ‘shell shock’ (or ‘neurasthenia’) – to refer to a range of physical and psychological symptoms triggered by the war. In the decades after the Armistice, the millions of wounded veterans acted as living embodiments for civilian populations of the physical and mental consequences of conflict, and the wounded or shell-shocked veteran still functions in contemporary culture as a powerful emblem of the suffering of war.

This strand has been very active. Jessica Meyer  has been working alongside students from the school of history to design a workshop on British medical evacuation during the war to take into primary schools. They have been working closely with Dee Matthews at Lotherton Hall, who is organising a workshop around the activities of auxiliary hospitals in wartime, to create a package of resources.

In October 2013 a workshop on the history of Medicine and the First World War in Europe was held at the University of Leeds on 17 and 18 October.  Sponsored by the Leeds Centre for Medical Humanities and Legacies of War, with additional funds provided by the Social History Society, the Society for the Social History of Medicine and the British Society for the History of Science, this international gathering attracted participants from France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Belgium, a range of UK universities and several organisations from across Leeds, including Leeds City Museums and Legacies of War research partner groups.  A total of 38 people attended across the two days, including 9 postgraduates and 7 early career researchers.

Strand leader Dr Jessica Meyer has also been involved with a number of activities during 2014 and 2015. These have included: working with The Healing Home exhibition at Temple Newsam; presenting the story of medical evacuation to pupils of Shire Oak Primary School and Bedale High School; and creating a website on the history of British medical evacuation aimed at Key Stage 2 pupils as part of the FOAR2000 research and engagement module at the University of Leeds (this is primarily the work of three undergraduates in the School of History and will be piloted to schools in September 2015).

In addition, Jessica has secured ERC funding for a project on the care of disabled ex-servicemen after the war. This will include a database of information drawn from Ministry of Pension files and will involve both collaboration with the National Archives and the recruitment of a postdoctoral researcher and 2 PhD students (further details will be announced in the next few months).

War and Medicine is keen to encourage further collaborations and is interested in hearing from groups and individuals with ideas for projects/grant applications.

This strand is led by Dr Jessica Meyer.