By Susan Speaker ~
In an earlier post, I highlighted the wartime experiences of Sir William Osler, who is often called “the father of American medicine. Dr. Osler was enjoying a very active retirement in Oxford, England when the first world war began in August 1914. He and Lady Osler pitched in with the war effort, organizing military hospitals, tending the wounded, working with the Red Cross, and taking in Belgian refugees. Their only child, Edward Revere (b. 1895), had started college at Oxford that fall, but left after one term to join a McGill University hospital unit. Revere wasn’t especially eager for battlefield experience, but, like almost everyone, wanted to “do his bit.” He spent the summer and fall of 1915 in France with the hospital unit; when it was disbanded at the end of the year (after seeing very little action), he enlisted in the British army. By October of 1916, he was back in France with the Royal Field Artillery’s 59th Brigade. His descriptions of the battery’s location in a November 14th letter were of little comfort to his anxious parents.
The letters of Sir William and Lady Osler during the war years reflect, among other things, the relentless stream of tragic news from the front. No family was spared the loss of loved ones, it seemed; the sons, nephews, brothers, cousins, friends, and colleagues of the Oslers’ neighbors and extended family appeared on the casualty lists with alarming frequency. Like many, they tried to keep their spirits up and carry on, but they worried constantly about their son, and often feared the arrival of each day’s telegrams and mail. Remarkably, for many months, Revere was not injured at all, except for minor exposure to poison gas.
However, at the end of August 1917, the RFA 59th brigade was part of the summer offensive into Belgium known as the Battle of Passchendaele (or the Third Battle of Ypres). As Revere’s unit was moving their guns forward on August 29th, a large German shell hit close by, wounding or killing nine men. Revere, with severe shrapnel wounds to his abdomen, chest, and thigh, was carried by stretcher, rail, and field ambulance to the nearest casualty clearing station (CCS #47). The American staff there summoned Harvey Cushing (an Osler family friend) and George Crile from their respective base hospitals, and they assisted the CCS surgeons who tried to repair the damage. With surgery and several blood transfusions, their patient seemed to stabilize and even regained consciousness briefly. Despite the best available care, Lieutenant Osler died early on the morning of August 30th, one hundred years ago today.
In their letters just after Revere’s death, his grieving parents revealed not just their anguish at losing their cherished only child, but the terrible—and no doubt common—feeling of resignation that no family touched by the Great War would escape loss.
Through 2018, Circulating Now will periodically publish posts featuring NLM collections that illuminate the medical history of The Great War, which lasted from August 1914 to November 1918. These Osler family letters are in the collections of the Osler Library at McGill University and the Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, and are available on NLM’s Profiles in Science site.
Susan Speaker, PhD, is Historian for the Digital Manuscripts Program of the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.