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Uncovering the unsung medical heroes of the Great War

 
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BerichtGeplaatst: 06 Feb 2013 18:35    Onderwerp: Uncovering the unsung medical heroes of the Great War Reageer met quote

Quote:
The Imperial Collage of London reports:

Dr Emily Mayhew, Research Associate (Co-curricular Studies) and professional historian, tells the story of the stretcher bearers of the Great War

The expression ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’, made famous by Isaac Newton, is often used to acknowledge the fact that no discovery or leap forward happens in isolation and that progress owes to the efforts of all the minds gone before, whose work we build upon.

While we might assume the history of science and medicine has been largely characterised and all the major players credited in some way, there are still unsung heroes out there waiting to be ‘discovered’.

Dr Emily Mayhew, a Research Associate in the Centre for Co-curricular Studies and professional historian, recently made such a revelation through her research on the medical infrastructure of World War I and the stretcher bearers that were at the heart of it.

Emily wrote her PhD thesis at Imperial (in what was then the London Centre for the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology) on the birth of modern plastic surgery in World War II, focusing on maverick surgeon Archibald McIndoe who pioneered new techniques to treat airmen with serious burns. That work became a book – The Reconstruction of Warriors – then a BBC documentary and now possibly a feature film.

For her second book, Emily wanted to take a step back, to World War I, but to her surprise she found out that the bulk of the medical reports from the war were disposed of in the mid-1920s leaving very little official material from which to work.

“That was in sharp contrast to when I worked on the Second World War, where there was a pristine set of hospital records in the National Archive that nobody had ever seen before. So there it was basically – a PhD and a book, easy-peasy! I soon realised I would have to build this new book from personal testimony and private collections of documents, diaries and letters.”

Reading these first-hand accounts, it became clear to Emily that an essential part of medical treatment in World War I was the teams of stretcher-bearers who were, for the first time, given basic first aid training and endorsement to give care to the injured.

“The really important story was the idea of pushing medicine forward, towards the battle, so that you started to treat people as close to the front line, and as soon as they were wounded, as possible. Once I’d worked out that was happening it’s very easy to see how that relates to the way that we treat causalities today.”

Emily argues that these stretcher bearers are direct ancestors of modern Combat Medical Technicians. Where once there would have been a team of stretcher bearers approaching a shell crater, there is now a Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT) flying out in helicopters to marines injured by IEDs or wounded in gunfire. The basic strategy remains the same.

It was quite a fraught process gathering all the sources, as many of the stretcher bearers were uneducated and rarely kepy diaries. Testimonies often came from medical officers who were increasingly reliant on the stretcher bearers.
“It’s a history that very nearly evaporated; it was like catching smoke. They [the stretcher bearers] were an incredible bunch of people, you come to love them. I have this slightly weird thing, where I’m in my office working and I sense they’re watching – there they are in the mud holding out the stretcher. I feel a very strong sense of responsibility, because I’m really the first person telling their story in a comprehensive way and I need to get it right, otherwise they’ll be disappointed. In that respect it’s been a privilege.”

Emily presented her research for the first time at an event held at the Royal Society of Medicine. At the end of the talk she was approached by an elderly retired GP who was in tears. He explained that his great uncle was a stretcher bearer and often tried to talk to him about his medical career, only to be dismissed by the young medic as “just a porter.” “Now I understand,” said the GP.

At around the same time Emily was introduced to playwright Jenny Stephens, who was writing a production commissioned by the Wellcome Trust. Jenny had planned to tell the story of the doctors and medical officers of World War I, but after hearing about Emily’s work, was determined to focus on the stretcher bearers.

Jenny and Emily worked together on the play resulting in Wounded – which was delivered under the auspices of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and performed at the King’s Heath Military Barracks in the city. It ran for 10 days there, before coming to Imperial for a week in November at the Great Hall as an outreach event.

“It was a huge learning curve because this was the first time a professional theatre company had done anything at the College, and logistically it was really difficult. But everyone was extremely helpful – the conference people who organised the Great Hall, they really stuck their necks out, and DramSoc was absolutely fantastic.”

Not only was it a first for the College, but for many of the schoolchildren in audience – more than two-thirds of whom had never been to any theatre production.

“They were gripped for 85 minutes, and they really got it. I hadn’t understood the power of drama and the history of medicine as being an introduction to medicine itself. All those things would have been difficult and probably boring for me to convey in a lecture; the play did it for me, all I had to do afterwards was fill the gaps in”

The play then went to Edinburgh, which unbeknown to Emily or the crew at the time is a prominent garrison town. Indeed, the children of active servicemen and women came to watch the play and take part in drama workshops. Their teachers noted it was the first time these children had really opened up about the jobs of their parents.

The play will hopefully return to the College in 2014, as part of the commemoration of the centenary of World War I. Indeed, the College has set up a centenary committee and is working to uncover significant contributions that were made here. For example it is known that the Chemistry Department was involved in analysing gas bombs and even dug a practice trench to test out gas masks.

Just as the West End play War Horse highlighted a previously neglected aspect of the ‘Great War’ it could be that the College uncovers a few of its own unsung heroes.

Dr Emily Mayhew is a Research Associate in the Centre for Co-curricular Studies and professional historian. She also teaches a module on the history of medicine to fourth year MBBS students and does a lot of work with Outreach at the College.

Source: Imperial Collage London


http://www.warhistoryonline.com/war-articles/uncovering-the-unsung-medical-heroes-of-the-great-war.html
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If any question why we died
Tell them, because our fathers lied
-Rudyard Kipling-

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