Kevin Brown Historian

History of health, medicine and naval history

In the Wars: Military Medicine Revisited

A poster advertising a recent lecture where sartorial elegance mattered  as much as eloquence

A poster advertising a recent lecture where sartorial elegance mattered as much as eloquence, but then a smart appearance and the armed forces go hand in hand

The history of military medicine seems to be very popular at the moment. Perhaps this is connected with the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War next year, or perhaps just the continuing casualties coming from the war zones in Afghanistan.

While the Imperial War Museum in London has been closed for most of this year and will be partially closed into next year as it is refurbished in preparation for its commemoration of the Great War, its outpost at Salford Quays, Manchester, the Imperial War Museum North has mounted a major exhibition on military medicine since 1914: Saving Lives: Frontline Medicine in a Century of Conflict. It is a pity that this exhibition can not also be shown in London as it takes a comparative approach showing the continuities and changes in the practice of military medicine in the last century. The exhibition which opened in October 2012 is still on until 28 August 2013. The exhibition focuses on the physical and emotional impact on individuals in fighting wars and the wider consequences for society and enables the visitor to follow a casualty through the medical chain, from the battlefield to field hospitals and on to specialist care at home

I have to admit to being a little biased in my attitude towards this exhibition as my 2008 book Fighting Fit was cited twice in it. Indeed I was the only non-combatant to be quoted on the exhibition panels and the only person quoted twice. Inevitably one of the citations was on the impact of penicillin in the Second World War, but I was also quoted on the way the injuries and deformities inflicted by the First World War affected the development of plastic surgery and facial reconstruction.

Manchester 2012 019I seem to have given a lot of talks this year on health, medicine and war in the twentieth century, including a day school at the City Lit on health and medicine on the Home Front in the First World War and a summer school posing the question as to whether the Great War was good for medicine. We could have some very interesting debates on those questions. However, it was the subject of battlefield medicine and surgery in the Second World War that I engaged when invited to speak at a conference at the National Army Museum in March on Army Medicine: From Leeches to Lasers. It is a big subject as there were so many developments of medical importance in those years, such as blood transfusion, airborne medical units, plastic surgery, advances in psychiatry, more effective prevention and treatment of malaria and, of course, penicillin, that there was a lot to fit into an hour-long lecture.

Apart from a talk on the Royal Army Medical Corps response to gas warfare by Peter Starling of the Armed Services Medical Museum, the other speakers largely spoke of their personal experiences. John Nichol, now a novelist and writer of popular military history, gave an enthralling account of his capture by the Iraqis while he was serving in the RAF during the First Gulf War. Perhaps it was not about army medicine, but it did show some of the psychological pressures faced by prisoners of war. Jake Wood gave a harrowing account of his personal experience of post traumatic stress disorder following his recent territorial army service in Afghanistan and of his continuing nightmare. Captain Francis Atkinson, representing the charity Walking with the Wounded, who had served as a doctor in Afghanistan until himself wounded, spoke of an expedition to climb Everest by disabled ex-servicemen in which he had participated.

Manchester 2012 015

A member of the audience had served in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the Second World War and had some interesting questions, which is always satisfying for any speaker. It is also good to hear about an individual’s own experiences. A few weeks later he visited the Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum with a box of  penicillin (now lacking its contents) that had been dropped by parachute at Arnhem with the medics.

Next year, of course, we will hear even more about medicine in the First World War.


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