The Medical Department of the United States Army in the World War

World War I Centenary Forum: Stories from the NLM Collections

By Jeffrey S. Reznick and Anne Rothfeld

One hundred years ago, on April 2, 1917, US President Woodrow Wilson spoke to the US Congress requesting a declaration of war against Germany, arguing that “the world must be made safe for democracy.”  Four days later, on April 6, Congress declared war on Germany and her allies.

This week, we observe the centennial of America’s entry into the Great War with a public forum highlighting a small selection of NLM’s rich historical collections related to World War I, and Americans’ experiences on the battlefield, behind the front lines, and on the home front. By the time the United States entered the war, the conflict had been ongoing for nearly three years. During the 19 months that would follow, until the war officially ended on November 11, 1918, more than four million Americans would serve, both overseas and at home. More than 100,000 Americans would lose their lives in the war.

The Library’s collections provide glimpses of very personal experiences of the physical and emotional effects of the war as well as examples of the visual iconography that extolled and supported lifesaving medical endeavors abroad.

Join us Thursday, April 7, 2017, 2–3:30pm in the NLM’s Lister Hill Auditorium, Building 38A, or live online, to hear a variety of stories drawn from our collections.  The World War I Centenary Forum will consist of three talks:

A bearded man holds a mask by his face.Masking Devastation: Inside Anna Ladd’s Paris Studio,” by Sarah Eilers, Archivist, Historical Audiovisuals, describes the fabrication of facial prostheses  developed for injured soldiers

A group of nurses pose in a city.The Frances Dupuy Fletcher Photo Album,” by Stephen J. Greenberg, Ph.D., Head, Rare Books & Early Manuscripts, details Fletcher’s experiences as a Red Cross nurse in France

Three nurses and a dog pose wear white with the red cross symbol outside a red cross tent.A Call to Service: Red Cross Posters and Postcards During World War I,” Ginny Roth, Archivist, Prints & Photographs, discusses how illustrators depicted medicine and medical professionals in print

Interviews with each presenter will appear this week on Circulating Now.

The National Library of Medicine traces its roots back to the US Army Surgeon General’s Office in the early-nineteenth century. This week’s centennial commemoration offers an opportunity to reflect on the wartime work of our predecessor institution, the Army Medical Library, whose staff began to feel the impact of the war shortly after the conflict began in 1914. Many European medical publications that the Library had been acquiring soon stopped arriving due to the German U-boat campaign against merchant ships in Atlantic shipping lanes.

Formal portrait of a woman in a military uniform.
Loy McAfee, MD, ca. 1917
McAfee worked at the Library as a temporary employee during World War I.
National Library of Medicine #101422563

When the United States entered the war, and when its War Department called men into service, these changes affected the personnel of the Library since it was largely staffed by Army clerks. Recognizing that the Library could not function without much of its staff, the Army allowed the leadership of the Library for the first time to hire women in large numbers to maintain Library operations; many stayed at the Library until their retirement. Audrey Morgan, MD and Loy McAfee, MD, both contract physicians with the US Army, were two of these female wartime hires.

In 1917, the leadership of the Army Medical Library identified the importance of collecting and preserving the experiences of the US Army Medical Department in the Great War. The Surgeon General created a History Division within the Library, to write The Medical Department of the United States Army in the World War. Published over eight years, from 1921 to 1929, this comprehensive fifteen-volume series covered subjects ranging from general surgery to hygiene, orthopedics to combat disorders, and hospitals to gas warfare.

You can find this seminal publication in NLM Digital Collections, alongside hundreds of other wartime and postwar publications, which help to reveal the unifying experience of the war for America, as well as the aftermath of the conflict as the nation welcomed home more than 300,000 wounded servicemen.

Over the next two years, Circulating Now will periodically publish posts featuring NLM collections that illuminate the medical history of The Great War.

Jeffrey S. Reznick, PhD, is Chief of the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

Anne Rothfeld, PhD, is a librarian and historian in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine.

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