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Cataloguing IWM medical collections

Image of a photograph and letter from Nursing Sister D M L Crewdson

A photograph of and letter from Nursing Sister D M L Crewdson (August 1918) about the award of her Military Medal. IWM DOCS 62/135/1

One of the most rewarding aspects of my work since I joined the Research Department has been cataloguing IWM’s medical collections.  This was part of a major project supported by the Wellcome Trust to expand our understanding and online coverage of the experiences and participation of medical personnel and their patients in various conflicts since 1900.  Working my way through boxes of diaries and letters, I wrote synopses for each of a large number of our collections which has now made it easier for researchers to locate material relevant to the history of medicine.

One of the joys of this research was discovering the personal experiences of medical staff who served during the two world wars.  One particularly moving collection contained the letters written home by Dorothea Crewdson, who as a nurse on the Western Front became one of the few women to be awarded the Military Medal for bravery.  After being wounded when her hospital at Etaples was bombed by the Germans in May 1918, Nursing Sister Crewdson refused treatment in order to continue to tend to her patients.  Tragically, she died from peritonitis just after the war had ended, on 12 March 1919 aged just 32, and is buried in Etaples Military Cemetery. 

The papers of John Sidebotham record the frustrations of trying to obtain a pension after he suffered ill-health whilst serving in the Far East during the Second World War.  His initial submission to the Ministry of Pensions was refused and his collection documents his subsequent appeal, attempting to prove a link between the various illnesses he had suffered during the war, and the TB later diagnosed after his return home.  But his case, in the end, was dismissed.

Infectious diseases continuously feature in the collections as a severe problem which the armed services and their medical staff sought to combat.   During the First World War the letters of Major Frank Steadman provide a colourful illustration of how, for some in the thick of the fighting, the battle was as much against disease as against the enemy.  In his letters, he described in detail the different types of mosquitoes encountered by the troops, pointing out the ones which transmit malaria.  Promoted in late 1917 onto the staff of 20th Corps, he then toured Palestine, seeking out larvae and identifying the large areas of water, such as cisterns, which the insects use as their breeding grounds.  He then tried to prevent their breeding by pouring oil onto the surface of the water – in those days they didn’t have DDT.  He was also interested in the origins of trench fever, which was transmitted by lice.  He attempted to eliminate lice infestations among his soldiers by setting up bath units and laundries to clean the troops’ clothes.  At one point, in a letter home to his wife, he explained that he had gone so far as to ban all his troops from Jerusalem because he considered it such an unsanitary place where they might quickly succumb to disease. 

Image of a photograph of and card sent by Captain Robert Ware

Photograph of Captain Robert Ware and the Christmas Card sent home to his family. IWM DOCS 62/232/1

The dangers of serving with the medical services too were very real.  One officer, Captain Robert Ware, an American doctor from Virginia serving with the 29th US Division was killed landing with the first wave on Omaha Beach during the Normandy landings on 6 June 1944 (D-Day), leaving behind a widow and baby son born while his father was serving in the army.  Reading his letters provide a vivid impression of the effects of war on England and of daily life on the Home Front – ‘everyone is in war work’, he wrote, and ‘all the women wear some sort of uniform’.  His death and that of Nurse Crewdson provide an insight not only into the ultimate sacrifice made by men and women of many nationalities during the two world wars, but also just how many other lives were saved by the commitment and skill of the medical services, which made a major contribution to victory.

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