Circulating Now welcomes guest blogger Katherine Akey. Ms. Akey is Adjunct Professor of Photography in the Corcoran School of the Arts at the George Washington University and Fellow in the Living Legacy of World War One project at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. She is also the line producer for the United States World War One Centennial Commission weekly WW1 Centennial News Podcast. Today she employs her considerable expertise to give us insight into a private and profound photographic collection of an American surgeon in the Great War, now held in the public trust at the National Library of Medicine.
Roy Bard Sheetz was born on Halloween, 1892. He left his small hometown in Lancaster, Pennsylvania for Camp Meade after being called up in the draft in the summer of 1917; like so many other Americans at the time, he would have found himself thrown into an Army that was just starting to flex its muscles, expanding and growing to accommodate the world’s first modern, global war.
And like so many other Americans of his time, Sheetz was trained, he was shipped out across the Atlantic, and he served—and upon returning home, he did his best to return to his previous life, taking over the family business and raising a family of his own. Like most veterans of the era, he spoke little of his experiences and kept what physical evidence he had of it tucked away.
His stripes, his tourist map of Paris, his photo albums and ticket stubs lay in the dark of his bedroom closet decade after decade. Like so many other collections of life during wartime, these odds and ends gathered dust and could very easily have ended up in the local antiques store, the trash, or continued to languish in an attic. Instead, thanks to his family, Sheetz’s belongings were donated to the National Library of Medicine.
The Roy Bard Sheetz collection traces his service during World War One from his training at Camp Meade, Maryland to his tour around the fighting front of France and his service at the American Red Cross Hospital #1 in Neuilly-sur-Seine, Paris. Through additional research, I was able to piece together a patchy timeline of his service in France. After undergoing officer training at Camp Meade in the winter of 1917, Roy Sheetz was assigned as an assistant to First Lieutenant Frank Leonard of Indianapolis, who had spent the previous nine months training as a dentist for the Dental Reserve Corps. They arrived in France in May, 1918 and went on to serve together at the American Red Cross Hospital #1 in Neuilly-sur-Seine from then until January, 1919.
Sheetz served near the front at the Aisne Marne in July and at Chateau Thierry in August, 1918—and looking at images in Sheetz’s photo albums, we can trace his movements as he traveled around the St. Mihiel salient that summer. One image in particular features the town of Flirey, the town name worn but legible on a sign aloft in a building’s ruins. There is also a photograph of a destroyed railway bridge that was well documented in Flirey. Another snapshot of Sheetz’s features what is likely the Hotel in Chateau Thierry, and yet another the damaged but regal Cathedral at Reims.
His albums then turn into an intimate and beautiful documentation of life in Neuilly-sur-Seine: shots of sunlight streaming into the wards of the American Red Cross Military Hospital #1; group photos of the officers, the surgeons, and the patients; snapshots of the sights to see in Paris during wartime, including a foggy, magical trip to Versaille; and my personal favorites, images of the maxillofacial patients sitting together, reading the newspaper. The end of Sheetz’s time in France was marked with some loss and sadness; the dentist he was assisting, First Lieutenant Frank Leonard, died of influenza and pneumonia in January, 1919, and shortly thereafter the hospital was quickly shut down. Sheetz soon shipped back to the U.S., photographing boxing matches and smiling nurses aboard his transport ship as he headed home.
Every collection of photographs, especially those made in wartime, is remarkable. But Sheetz’s has something particularly remarkable for an American Sargent—official medical photographs of maxillofacial surgical patients, displaying in vivid clarity their wounds and their progress towards recovery. In the Sheetz collection are thirty-five portraits, stark images of maxillofacial patients like those that he and the team of dentists and surgeons in Neuilly-sur-Seine would have been treating. Whether or not the men in the images are in fact patients of Sheetz and Dr. Leonard remains unclear—but it is very likely they were treated at the American Red Cross Military Hospital #1 and were photographed there for medical reference.
How Roy Sheetz came to take these images home with him remains foggy—but they represent some of very, very few such images in the national public archives of the United States. The wounds they depict—some of the most gruesome ever to be inflicted upon humankind, no doubt—were quite common during the war, and thousands of similar images were made for medical reference during and after the conflict by the surgeons and dentists who treated these injuries.
Other portraits taken of jaw ward patients are plentiful in European public collections; the efforts of talented surgeons like Dr. Harold Gillies in the UK or those at the Val De Grace in France are well known and documented. In France in particular, the gueules cassées as they’re known, maintain to this day a very public presence in French culture and society. But jaw ward medical photographs are few in number in American collections; despite being at the center of maxillofacial and plastic surgery during the war, the medical staff of the American Hospital and the American Red Cross Military Hospital #1 did not bring back images of these injuries en masse, rather these archives of medical technique were kept within the institutions that produced them.
Some American soldiers suffered these types of wounds—many of them returning home for treatment at Jaw Wards here in the States either at Cape May, New Jersey or in St. Louis, Missouri. Images of them and their injuries are sprinkled throughout various American collections, like those at the National Museum of Health and Medicine at Walter Reed. But the images of American soldiers are notably few and the injuries depicted markedly less severe than those from the European collections.
Sheetz would have spent day after day helping men with these deeply impactful injuries; it’s not hard to understand that the experience of the nurses, doctors and support staff that worked with the wounded in World War One would be forever changed by the experience. But upon return to the United States, what reminders would there be of that service that Sheetz had undertaken? The presence of the gueules cassées in America during and after the War was insignificant, bordering on nonexistent. There were occasional newspaper articles at the time, most of which lauded the surgeons and hailed the miraculous transformation the soldiers underwent—often overlooking the difficult reality of reconstructive surgery at the time and the psychological aspect to the trauma.
Essentially, these wounds and their lingering trauma seem to have been treated as exclusively private matters. Universally, the men in the jaw wards were sequestered from other patients so as not to bring down morale; they weren’t even permitted to see their own reflection until the surgeons felt they could bear it. And, in America, soldiers with facial injuries had little public presence at all; once these men left their sequestration in the Army hospitals, they took on their disfigurements and traumas alone or within the small circle of their family and loved ones. Perhaps this is just reflective of statistics; France, followed by Britain and Germany, had more gueules cassées than any other country, so the need to confront these injuries and their effect on society at large would have been a much more pressing issue in Europe than here in the United States.
Yet here is Roy Sheetz, who spent a year as a young man in the service of these wounded soldiers and made the effort to keep that experience close to him through photography. Perhaps these portraits are images of particular patients he helped care for, or perhaps he just couldn’t bear to see duplicate copies of any portrait of these men thrown away as the American Red Cross Military Hospital #1 was emptied out and shuttered after the Armistice. No matter his reason, Sheetz managed to give an American institution, and now us, its own glimpse at the face of modern warfare, of the horror and destruction wrought in Europe for years before American involvement—a view of the wrenching disfigurement that was so well hidden from American eyes for the last century.
For questions about this collection and other historical collections, including how to consult them, please contact the History of Medicine Division Reference staff at NLM Customer Support or call (301) 402-8878.
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.
Katherine Akey is an artist living in Washington, DC where she makes work about polar exploration, World War I and early aviation.