Medicine in the First World War

By Donna Peck
November 12, 2014

When the United States entered the First World War in 1917, the U.S. Army mobilized medical resources in major American cities to create 100 large base hospitals that would be located miles behind the front but immediately accessible by highly efficient ambulance trains. One of those hospitals was Base Hospital #28, the military base hospital that was formed by Kansas City doctors and nurses and located in Limoges, France. The hospital was led by doctors who were affiliated with the University of Kansas School of Medicine before and after The Great War. Initially planned for 500 beds, the hospital expanded to nearly 3,000 beds as battle casualties and influenza epidemic patients poured in.

Now the University of Kansas Medical Center has a website devoted to the history and stories about Base Hospital #28. The website is a cooperative effort of KU Medical Center and The National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Mo.

One of the driving forces behind the Medicine in the First World War website is Frederick Holmes, M.D., a professor in the Department of the History and Philosophy of Medicine and the Hashinger Distinguished Professor of Medicine, Emeritus, at the KU School of Medicine. Holmes, who collaborated on the website with his KU colleagues, Anthony Kovac, M.D., professor of anesthesiology, and Grace Holmes, M.D., professor of pediatrics and preventive medicine emeritus, said it is important that the story of Base Hospital #28 be remembered.

“I think particularly as the centennial of the First World War approaches, more people will be interested in how medicine was practiced in the European theater of operations,” Holmes said. “The doctors and nurses who were associated with the KU Schools of Medicine and Nursing had some very compelling stories to tell.”

Holmes said records of Base Hospital #28 are extensive and include a variety of reports, patient records, hospital records, x-rays, statistical data, and over 1,000 black and white images from photo albums and scrapbooks detailing medical and hospital practice.

The primary source of the materials included on the website are the archives of the National World War I Museum and of KU Medical Center, including the personal diaries of doctors and nurses who served during the war.

“As much material we have been able to include on the website, there are volumes more that we have yet to get through,” Holmes said.

In addition to an in-depth history of Base Hospital #28, the website features scholarly essays on topics related to World War I military medicine. Essay topics include “Blood Transfusions during the First World War” and “Typhus on the Eastern Front.”

Holmes said he anticipates that more historical materials and essays will be added to the Medicine in the First World War website in the coming months and years. He said those working on the website will continue to speak and publish, will sponsor exhibits at the Clendening History of Medicine Museum, and will encourage hospitals and other medical facilities in the Kansas City region to recognize the centennial of the Great War in a variety of ways.

“The doctors and nurses from our area who served at Base Hospital #28 made a tremendous contribution to the U.S. war effort,” Holmes said. “We want to make sure that their stories are told and preserved.

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