By Krista Stracka ~
When times get tough, a much-needed laugh can cut through the stress and fears that accompany uncertainty. But for those cooped up with a prankster on this April Fools’ Day, look out!
The soldiers and civilians who endured the First World War often used humor to offset the terror they experienced and to bolster morale while tackling the challenges of the war. One charming example was donated to the National Library of Medicine in 2014.
Prefaced with a faux plate that reads “Not to be taken seriously,” the satirical Alphabet Our Hospital Anzac British Canadian,1916 shows amusing scenes in a WWI hospital, delightfully illustrated by Joyce Dennys (1893–1991) with accompanying verses by Hampden Gordon and M.G. Tindall.
The rhymes are clever, but the witty illustrations attract the most attention. The subdued palette in each full-page lithograph is inspired by the uniforms of the hospital’s cast of expressive characters: the soldier patients, the trained medical staff, and the civilian volunteers like the proud boy scout and even the artist herself as a VAD nurse. After studying at Exeter Art School, Dennys continued on to London but left her studies soon after the war broke to aid in the national effort as a member of the British Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD), first in general service and later as a nurse. According to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM), the book was a “product of all-night painting sessions” by Dennys and the composition of verses by “her ‘protector and friend’ fellow nurse Mary Tindall.”
Beneath the light-hearted façade, these verses and illustrations quietly draw attention to the common challenges experienced by the VAD nurses who performed difficult and dangerous work for no pay aside from a small stipend. The trained nurses often gave the VADs a hard time, reluctant to work alongside amateurs who had little training beyond a short certificate program in first aid, home nursing, and hygiene. With a strong sense of purpose and very little time off, the VADs carried out their nursing assistant duties in addition to cleaning. Absent from the pages is the darkest reality. In caring for their soldier patients, trained and voluntary nurses alike risked their own lives as they were exposed to the infections and diseases from the trench and later to the Spanish Flu. Many, like Dennys’s friend Mary G. Tindall, paid the ultimate price. Tindall died a year after this book was published from an illness contracted while treating patients.
Despite the war, Dennys did not lose her wry sense of humor. She went on to create more humorous works during and after the war, she wrote plays for both adults and children, and displayed her artwork in galleries. In 1919, she married Dr. Thomas Cann Evans, who served as a major in the Australian Medical Corps. Her new role as a doctor’s wife came with a strict code of conduct and likely felt familiar to the innumerable rules she was required to follow during her days as a VAD. Armed with her signature wit, she channeled her thoughts on these unique social demands and often unrealistic expectations into the satirical three-part Mrs. Dose series. In 2006, Dr. William H. Helfand donated two editions of the first book, Mrs. Dose, the Doctor’s Wife: a Book on False Nosery, to the National Library of Medicine. This new cast of characters is no less amusing than those of the hospital in her earlier work, all of whom are navigating how (or if) to physically wear the “False Nose…firmly fixed to her face” that came with their wedding ring.
The story begins with the introduction, “All Doctor’s Wives wear False Noses. This is a fact that is not generally known, except to Doctors and their Wives themselves.” The False Nose restricts her to the behaviors that will protect her husband’s career from the competition of other doctors in the community and herself from public scrutiny, and bring new patients into his practice. The tales include the lengths to which some wives will go to display their dedication (as demonstrated with Poor Mrs. Tibia), the consequences of losing the False Nose (as Edward Cardiac’s wife Cynthia experiences in a rather Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde scenario), and the heart attack-inducing shock to the community of the rebellious artist who refuses to wear it. Each chapter is illustrated with line-drawings of the absurdities that play out, including a scene of Cynthia’s husband first finding her nose in the driveway and later carefully placing it back on her face as he puts her to bed after her afternoon rampage.
So, on this April Fools’ Day, if you do learn the hard way that all of your remotes are missing batteries or your morning coffee is full of salt, may a dose of Dennys prevent an afternoon rampage of your own.
Krista Stracka is a Rare Book Cataloger for the Rare Books and Early Manuscripts Section in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.