A typed war diary entry.

The U.S. Army Medical Department begins Operations in France

 By Susan Speaker ~

Portrait of a man in uniform.
Dr. Merritte Ireland, ca. 1917
NLM #101419524

In recent posts, we’ve featured Base Hospital #4, the first group of American Expeditionary Force (AEF) medical personnel to join the Great War in 1917. This hospital unit, and five more like it, arrived in France late in May, and went immediately to relieve the medical staff at British Expeditionary Force base hospitals. Meanwhile, the regular Army Medical Department staff were beginning to organize the personnel and supplies of the first U.S. field and general hospital units for mobilization.

Merritte W. Ireland, Assistant Chief Surgeon of the AEF, was charged with this enormous undertaking. A diary account of his first few months in the war, included in the Merritte W. Ireland Papers at NLM, helps convey the complexity of medical administration during wartime. One of Ireland’s first tasks was to tour the southwest regions of France to inspect sites for camps and convalescent hospitals, especially their water supplies and proximity to good docks on the coast (the latter being essential for getting in supplies and troops.) He also recorded his concerns about the shortage of hospital trains (the U.S. would soon purchase more from Britain), shortage of lumber for building general hospitals, working with the Red Cross, U.S. Army takeover of the Ambulance Americaine in Paris, incidence of infectious diseases at the U.S. camp in St. Nazaire, control of prostitution (to control venereal diseases), and more mundane matters such as laundry facilities. Writing about a dinner with Drs. George Crile and Harvey Cushing on July 9th, he grumbled that he wished the two men weren’t working at the British base hospitals, as their brilliance would be useful in the main American efforts.

Dr. Ireland was well-qualified to lead this effort. He joined the Army Medical Service just after receiving his M.D. in 1891, and served in posts all over the U.S. before the Spanish American War; during and after that conflict he served in both field and administrative posts in Cuba and the Philippines. He spent several years at the Surgeon General’s Office in Washington as an administrator in various departments and was then assigned to Ft. Sam Houston in Texas, which was the hospital center for the 1916 Punitive Expedition to Mexico, led by General John Pershing. Pershing, of course, led the AEF when America joined the Great War.

Dr. Ireland became Chief Surgeon in April 1918, succeeding Dr. Alfred Bradley. When Army Surgeon General William Gorgas retired in October 1918, Ireland was appointed to the post, where he served until 1931.

NLM’s World War 1 digital collection also includes histories of some of the individual base hospitals as well as hospital newsletters.

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

Susan Speaker, PhD, is Historian for the Digital Manuscripts Program of the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

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