Medicine and War

Throughout the First World War, hundreds of hospitals in Britain treated wounded and ill soldiers. As well as the existing public hospitals which were taken over for military use, many other sites were taken over and used as war, auxiliary or voluntary hospitals. Beckett’s Park in Leeds was once such site. The two administrators at Beckett’s Park were Lieut.-Col. J. F. Dobson and Brevet Colonel H. Littlewood, C.M.G., both of whom were professors of surgery at Leeds University. Significant advances were made in orthopaedic and dental surgery at Leeds during this period.

There were four main types of hospital site used throughout the War:

  • Pre-existing military hospitals
  • Territorial Forces (TF) hospitals which had been used for training before the war but were fully mobilised in 1914
  • Pre-war asylums and public hospitals taken over for military use, also known as war hospitals
  • Auxiliary or voluntary hospitals

Leeds was home to a Territorial Forces hospital, a war hospital and over 20 auxiliary hospitals. Auxiliary hospitals were donated buildings converted for medical use and run as annexes of local war hospitals. No. 2 Northern General was a Territorial Forces hospital based in the converted teacher training college at Beckett’s Park in Headingley.

East Leeds Hospital was established in 1915 in the Leeds Union Workhouse in Beckett Street, with later extensions at Killingbeck and Harehills Council School. Along with No. 2 Northern General, it treated over 57,000 patients throughout the war, developing both in efficiency and medical practice.

After 1917, East Leeds took on the administrative role originally based at Beckett’s Park and also became home to one of the first specialist dental units in the country. This unit fitted dentures for the entire Northern Command, as well as developing methods of jaw reconstruction for plastic surgery.

Preparing culture media for use in the military hospitals

Preparing culture media for use in the military hospitals

Beckett’s Park became the largest Special Surgical Hospital for orthopaedics in the country, carrying out nerve suture, or ‘stitching’, procedures as well as large-scale bone grafting. Paraffin baths were first used at Beckett’s Park as preparation for massage and electric treatment. Electro-shock therapy was also administered to assist nerve regrowth after surgery as well as the re-education of muscles. This therapy was particularly successful and attracted doctors from across the country who came to observe the treatment.

Beckett’s Park also established a Curative Workshop, a centre for occupational therapy. This was one of the central developments in the treatment of disabled ex-servicemen during the war years. The focus of the workshop was to provide training to enable men to support themselves in civil life as well as providing medical therapy and mental occupation. There were sections for splint-making, basket-making, weaving, blacksmith’s work, tailoring, shorthand and typewriting, shoe-making, and mending.

Following treatment in the military hospitals, patients would be transferred to an auxiliary hospital for convalescence. Many of these were based in local country houses, donated to the war effort by their owners. Local hospitals to Leeds included Gledhow Hall, Harewood House, Lotherton Hall, Stapleton Park, Ledstone Hall, Swillington House and hospitals based in Chapeltown and Roundhay.

Lotherton Hall as Hospital, Image Courtesy of Lotherton Hall

Lotherton Hall as Hospital, Image Courtesy of Lotherton Hall

Life in hospital for patients was often extremely dull. As a result, H. Clifford Bowling, a local cartoonist, established the Leeds War Hospital Entertainment Scheme as a registered charity in 1916. The Scheme’s activities involved two entertainments a week at Beckett’s Park and many more at Killingbeck, including concerts, theatrical performances, film showings, talks by enthusiasts and performances by patients. Outings for convalescents were also provided by local voluntary organisations and even the occasional sports day.

Many hospitals also created hospital journals, edited by hospital staff, which were then sold to raise funds. Patients were encouraged to contribute stories, art work and poetry. The journal of No. 2 Northern General at Beckett’s Park was called The Blue Band. Surviving editions from 1919 include articles on ‘The Day in a Military Hospital’ and ‘The Wiring Party’, a mock report on men out of their beds after hours.

With thanks to Dr Jessica Meyer, Richard Wilcox and the headingleyhospital.org project.

The Blue Band Magazine of the 2nd Northern General Hospital, September, 1919 Photograph provided by Mr Richard Wilcocks

The Blue Band Magazine of the 2nd Northern General Hospital, September, 1919 Photograph provided by Mr Richard Wilcocks