Exhibit highlights Yale Medicine’s role in WWI

“Yale Medicine Goes to War, 1917,” an exhibit at Yale’s Medical Library, explores the contributions of students and faculty to America’s involvement in WWI.
titleThe men and women of Yale Mobile Hospital Unit 39

The men and women of Yale Mobile Hospital Unit 39, who sailed for France on Aug. 23, 1917. Joseph Marshall Flint, the unit’s commanding officer and professor of surgery at Yale, is seated at the center of the first row.

On June 18, 1917, Benjamin Edward Shove submitted an application to be an orderly with the Yale Mobile Hospital Unit 39, which would accompany American forces to the battlefront in France. 

Shove, a 25-year-old Yale graduate, noted on the enrollment form that he was “slightly nearsighted.”

I must serve in some way and that as quickly as possible,” he wrote. “Because of eyes, I fear that I can’t be a soldier.”

Yale Remembers World War I

Shove’s application is displayed in “Yale Medicine Goes to War, 1917,” an exhibit on view at Yale’s Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library through May 12, which explores the contributions of Yale Medical School students, researchers, and faculty to America’s involvement in World War I.

Refugees, Immigrants, and Library Books for Soldiers: A Selection of World War I Posters from the Collections,” a companion exhibit on view through April 25, shows how relief and governmental organizations rallied support for war refugees and sought to meet the needs of the nation’s soldiers. A collection of medical-themed sheet music from World War I accompanies the exhibits.

Curated by María Rios, a doctoral student in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, “Yale Medicine Goes to War, 1917” is organized around three subjects: how the Yale medical community mobilized to serve overseas; the war-time innovations of pioneering neurosurgeon Dr. Harvey Cushing, an 1891 graduate of Yale College and a founder of the medical library; and various war-related service and research by Yale faculty and personnel.

World War I was a very important time for Yale Medical School, Rios said. “They are trying to restructure and expand. They are creating the School of Public Health. They were worried about militarization of the medical school, but they are also performing important research connected to the war. They were changing how we view medicine.”

A WWI-era propaganda sheet music book, encouraging women to go to war as nurses.
Much of the WWI-era sheet music on display focuses on women, particularly nurses, portraying them as symbols of purity amid the destruction of war.

Mobile Hospital Unit 39

The exhibit opens with the story of Yale Mobile Hospital Unit 39.

Congress declared war on Germany on April 2, 1917. Two weeks later, the Yale Corporation approved funding to establish a mobile hospital unit. Joseph Marshall Flint, a professor of surgery, was tapped to lead the unit. Flint, Yale’s first full time professor of surgery, had served as a surgeon in an Athens hospital during the Greco-Bulgarian War of 1913 and in a French military hospital for six months in 1915.

Drawing on Flint’s archives, which are housed in the Manuscript and Archives Department at the Yale University Library, the exhibit demonstrates the careful planning that went into organizing, deploying, and operating the mobile hospital unit, which was a relatively new concept that the French had developed during the war to provide medical care to wounded soldiers more rapidly. 

A plan for Yale’s mobile hospital unit on display shows train tracks running along the back of the camp to facilitate the transportation of wounded and ailing soldiers.  The placement of the hospital close to the front lines reduced evacuation times and helped to prevent infections.

WWI propaganda poster with Uncle Sam.
This poster, featuring a smiling Uncle Sam in military dress, advertises services available to immigrants who had family members serving in the armed forces.

Mobile Hospital Unit 39 was the first medical unit of its kind organized in the United States,” said Rios, who took on the curating project through a Graduate School of Arts and Sciences program that provides sixth-year doctoral students career development opportunities.

The hospital unit employed 40 doctors and nurses as well as civilian employees, including Yale College graduates like Shove and 23-year-old John Lloyd Weetes, who applied to serve as a driver.

My mother wants me to get into some place were (sic) I can help but not kill,” he wrote on his enrollment form, which is displayed alongside Shove’s.

The unit sailed for France on Aug. 23, 1917.  At first the unit was assigned as a base hospital in the French home front, but was moved the American front in February 1918. Under Flint’s direction, the mobile hospital unit was able to operate at rate of 45 minutes per patient, an improvement on the French medical service’s rate of more than one hour per patient. Its 12 surgical teams operated on 170 patients per day, according to the Rios.

Rios said that Flint’s work organizing the mobile unit largely went unappreciated when he returned to New Haven after the armistice, which caused him to become depressed. Ultimately, the unit became the U.S. Army’s model for organizing mobile hospitals.

Wartime innovators

Dr. Harvey Cushing was a professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School when he traveled to France in March 1915 and organized one of the school’s two military hospitals there. Attaining the rank of colonel, he served in France, and later Belgium, until he contracted the Spanish flu in the war’s closing months. Cushing kept highly detailed diaries during his service and would recount his war experiences in “From a Surgeon’s Journal 1915-1918,” a memoir published in 1936. He also published several articles after the war explaining his approach to wartime surgery and sharing techniques he had developed in the operating room.

The unprecedented carnage of World War I provided Cushing ample opportunities to learn and innovate. One of his wartime diaries on display is opened to a sketch the neurosurgeon made of a transected spine. There are photographs of Cushing in the operating room and his photographs of patients in recovery. He developed a surgical magnet to extract shrapnel from patients’ brains. A copy of his war memoir is opened to a page on which he describes an especially difficult case in which he refitted the magnet with a wire nail to remove an elusive piece of shrapnel.

A WWI book drive poster.
The American Library Association raised money to provide books to American soldiers and sailors.

(A hunk of shell fragment on display provides a sense of the fearsome modern weaponry deployed on Cushing’s patients.)

Cushing performed eight brain surgeries a day. Initially, about 55% of his patients died, but the operative mortality rate had dropped to about 29% by the end of the war, according to Rios.

In studying Cushing’s diaries, Rios said she was interested in how the pioneering surgeon was struck by the Europeans’ apparent apathy toward the massive slaughter happening in the trenches.

Here we are as near the worst affair in history as Boston is to Worcester, and everyone appears to take it as though it had always been so, and would always be, and meanwhile goes about his own little business unconcernedly,” he wrote on April 2, 1915.

The exhibit’s last section explores other figures from Yale Medicine who contributed to the war effort and performed research on war-related health conditions like influenza and gas poisoning, concluding with a selection of World War I-era books on shellshock, venereal disease, and more from the Medical Historical Library’s collection.

It shares the story of Annie Goodrich, who would become dean of the Yale School of Nursing and Yale’s first female dean. During the war, Goodrich served as chief inspecting nurse of the Army Nursing Corps and, following an inspection of 136 military installations, devised a plan for an Army School of Nursing.

The Yale Station of the Chemical Warfare Service — established in June 1917 — became a major center of research into treatments for patients exposed to chemical weapons such as mustard gas.

Milton Winternitz, chair of the Department of Pathology at the time, helped organize the poison gas program and published a monogram on the pathology of war gas poisoning. His work on mustard gas opened the possibility that mustards could be used as chemotherapy to treat lymphosarcoma and related cancers.

Winternitz, who was dean of Yale Medical School from 1920 to 1935, found that the pathology of influenza pneumonia, which killed million worldwide during a 1918 pandemic, was similar to the pathologies caused by certain chemical weapons.  

Give or We Perish’

A poster on display in “Refugees, Immigrants, and Library Books for Soldiers” features the face of a beautiful woman — a Syrian refugee — wrapped in robes with worry etched in her expression. “Give or we perish,” the poster declares.

Polish-born artist Wladysaw Teodor (“W.T.”) Benda created the poster in 1918 for the Division of Pictorial Publicity, a federal agency that hired talented artists and illustrators to help publicize war-related initiatives, to promote a campaign to raise $30 million to support war refugees in Armenia, Syria, and Greece. Another poster on view from the same campaign depicts a small angelic child.

WWI poster intended to attract sympathy for the plight of war refugees in Greece, Armenia, and Syria.
The beautiful woman depicted on this poster was intended to attract sympathy for the plight of war refugees in Greece, Armenia, and Syria.

Susan Wheeler, curator of prints, drawings, and historical medical posters and the exhibit’s organizer, said the posters were designed to muster sympathy among the general public.

These two were representations of people who are deserving — a beautiful woman and a pitiful child,” she said. “Refugees were widely viewed as paupers; these posters are trying to change that view.”

Another group of posters on view publicized the American Library Association’s efforts to provide soldiers and sailors with books, magazines and other reading material. “Hey Fellows!” announces a poster featuring a doughboy raising a book in the air while a sailor sits cross-legged beside him reading. “Your money brings the book we need when we want it.”

A poster from the group shows several photos of soldiers in their camps relaxing with books.

They made an effort to create a comfortable reading environment for the soldiers,” Wheeler said. “Many soldiers increased their reading skills while in the service. Technical books and manuals were among the most popular material. They were educating themselves.”

Two posters advertise “war information centers” that were established by the Council of Organizations for War Service to provide resources and information to immigrants who had loved ones in the armed forces. The posters feature a smiling Uncle Sam dressed in a military uniform with a pencil in hand and ready to help. One poster is printed in English, the other in Greek.

An assortment of sheet music from World War I displayed in the library’s foyer gives a sense of how Americans incorporated the war effort into their daily entertainment.

This is what people played at home on the piano,” said Melissa Grafe, the John R. Bumstead Librarian for Medical History. “It was an uplifting rallying cry.”

Most of the sheet music, from a vast collection of medically themed sheet music donated in 2013 by William Helfand, focuses on women, particularly women serving as nurses.

We have Red Cross nurses, and nurses in general, being depicted as angels,” Grafe said. “Nurses on the front were compared to mothers, as maternal figures. It is meant to drive home a message of purity.”

Illustrations on the music covers show wounded soldiers lying in the arms of nurses. Songs have titles like “A Soldiers Last Request” and “I Don’t Want to Get Well,” a reference again to the “angelic” nurses caring for the wounded men.

The library is organizing a musical revue of the music on display, which will occur at the end of March.

The medical library is located in Sterling Hall of Medicine, 333 Cedar St. For hours, visit the library’s website.

Share this with Facebook Share this with X Share this with LinkedIn Share this with Email Print this
Part of the In Focus Collection: Yale remembers World War I

Media Contact

Mike Cummings: michael.cummings@yale.edu, 203-432-9548