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Medicine


 Over the weekend of 18-20 March an international conference took place in Leeds, focusing on resistance to the First World War. The conference, which I helped to organise, brought together academics, community groups, poets and storytellers from across the globe, including delegates who had travelled from Australia and the USA. The conference was envisaged following the suggestion that the prominent narratives during the First World War Centenary were limited to stories of those who had actively participated in the war effort. Stories of resistance to the war were missing from dominant narratives of remembrance and the conference sought to question what war resistance was, how acts of resistance were undertaken, and the significance of war resistance today. The presence of both academic and community focused research on resistance worked particularly well in addressing the many different facets of resistance; including the theoretical underpinnings of pacifism, international and transnational movements for peace, individual acts of conscious and unconscious resistance as well as national and local networks of resistance.

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Image of British Army Personnel in Sierra Leone

Since 2009 IWM has been running a project to collect the experiences of British military personnel serving in contemporary conflicts. Until last year, the dominant experience was the war in Afghanistan. But as this conflict began to draw down, British forces were deployed to help with other pressing concerns.

The latest IWM display, the fourth in the Contemporary Conflicts Programme, focuses on two different, concurrent deployments. Operation Gritrock was the British military’s contribution to the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone. Operation Shader is the British element of the fight against ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham), the Islamic extremist group, in the Middle East.

As with the previous displays, Fighting Extremes utilises material gathered directly from personnel who have served on these operations. The IWM team has conducted interviews and gathered film footage, photographs and other artefacts at locations ranging from Cyprus to Belfast. A selection of this material forms the basis of the new display.

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Kanyu Riverside Camp

Stanley Gimson, Kanyu Riverside Camp: Dysentery Ward (1943) © IWM (Art.IWM ART 16893)

Throughout Southeast Asia during the Second World War, tropical diseases ravaged the bodies of those held by Japanese occupying forces:

 As our pocket book gets cleaner

All our frames get leaner and leaner

And the grass grows greener in the graveyard area

Still with spirits unabating

We will wait while flies are mating

For the dysentery cholera and malaria

–        Geoffrey Monument, ‘Rhapsody in Rice’ (circa 1944)

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Avinoam Patt from the University of Hartford presenting his paper ‘ “Three lines in history”: writing about resistance in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust.’

On the third and last day of the conference the themes ranged from visual testimonies, and repatriation and resettlement, to the legacy of the euthanasia programmes and medical experiments, and the uses of the International Tracing Service (ITS) digital collection.

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Image of the main entrance at Budapest's Hospital in the Rock.

The Main Entrance at Budapest’s Hospital in the Rock, 1944 © hospitalintherock

Research Manager at IWM London, Emily Peirson-Webber, describes the history of Budapest’s Hospital in the Rock after a recent trip to the Hugarian capital.

During my recent trip to Budapest, I discovered the enigmatically named ‘Hospital in the Rock’. The site, which appears in the New York Times list of the top ten places to visit in the Hungarian capital and was nominated in the 2014 European Museum of the Year Awards, is still in its infancy as a visitor attraction – it was first opened to the public on a one-off basis in 2007.

The history of the Hospital in the Rock is compelling. Housed in a natural cave system spanning around 10km and located under Budapest’s Castle Hill (a 1km-long plateau situated 170m above the Danube); the site has been in use since the medieval period. However, it was during the Second World War that the caves took on a particularly important role for the city, due to their uniquely sheltered position.

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Tank ascending a slops

Tank F4 ascending a slope at the Tank Driving School during the special training for the Battle of Cambrai at Wailly, 21 October 1917. Tanks were one of the major engineering developments of the First World War and a key achievement of the ‘boffins’ © Imperial War Museums (Q 6299)

Our guest blogger Taylor Downing is a historian and writer. His latest book, Secret Warriors: Key Scientists, Code Breakers and Propagandists of the Great War will be published by Little, Brown on 1 May 2014.

Taylor will give the Churchill Lecture at the Churchill War Rooms on Tuesday 29 April 2014 at 7pm on the topic ‘Churchill and the “Boffins” of the First World War’. For details and how to book click here.

So much writing on the First World War concentrates on the trenches and the fighting on the Western Front. That is understandable. The terrible stories of suffering and loss, in which so many died for so little gain, reach out to everyone who has an interest in war. But there is another side to the war that hardly ever gets a look in. This is the subject of my new book, Secret Warriors. It is the story of the scientists who made a little known contribution to many aspects of the fighting. In the next war these men were given the affectionate nickname of ‘boffins’. Although that word was never used in the First World War, the ‘boffins’ in that conflict played an important role, too.

Firstly, consider aviation. In 1914 aviation was only just beyond its infancy and flying was still a seat-of-the-pants type activity. Engines generated little more than 100 horsepower and most aircraft could only stay airborne for 40 or 50 minutes. The dramatic progress in the science of aeronautics during the war meant that by 1918 some aircraft could draw on 1500 horsepower engines, could carry a heavy bomb load and stay airborne for up to 17 hours. The armed services possessed 272 aircraft in 1914. By 1918, the RAF had over 22,000 machines. The First World War created the modern aviation industry and Britain would become a major player for the next hundred years.

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Image of a photograph of William Davey

William Davey in uniform while serving with the Dragoon Guards. (Papers of W Davey, Documents 62/179/1)

As part of a major project supported by the Wellcome Trust, I catalogued some of the IWM’s medical collections which had hitherto been largely unavailable to researchers.  A major dividend from making these newly catalogued collections more accessible is that some are now on display in the new exhibition at IWM North, Saving Lives: Frontline Medicine in a Century of Conflict (13 October 2012 to 1 September 2013). 

The papers of William Davey who served in the ranks with the Dragoon Guards and the Labour Corps on the Western Front, record the effects of his service on his health.  He was awarded a War Badge in December 1917, having received an honourable discharge due to ill health.  On display are his Discharge Certificate releasing him from the Army as ‘no longer physically fit’ in November 1917; a Ministry of Pensions Notification of Final Award dated 1930, providing a full ‘a pension for life’ and a Ministry of Pensions letter dated 17 March 1933 informing his widow after his death (from the effects of gas) that she would not be eligible for a widow’s pension (but could apply for one).

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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. 

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Image of the photograph and letter from Nursing Sister D M L Crewdson (August 1918) about the award of her Military Medal

One of the collections catalogued by Dr Simon Robbins: 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

A delegation comes from the Wellcome Trust – to hear what we are doing on the medical history front.  It’s a great opportunity to let them hear and see just how strong are our collections on this topic.  Inevitably the medical treatment of wounded soldiers is a running theme in our collections – whether recruiting posters for Red Cross nurses in the First World War or films urging soldiers to protect themselves against malaria in the Second.  But there are wider themes you can explore here too – there are few aspects of war which did not impinge on health also.

Dr Simon Robbins is our medical expert and he talks through the work he has done this year – the Wellcome Trust has just supported a major cataloguing project of our collections of letters and diaries written by medical personnel.  We’re hoping to expand our understanding and online coverage of this massive subject – linking up with other archives so that specialists can see who has what.

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