Two weeks after the United States declared war on Germany in April of 1917, Dr. Fred Murphy of Washington University in St Louis Medical School got a call from the Surgeon General asking how soon he could have a hospital unit ready to go to Europe.
Within a few weeks, Base Hospital 21, which had had no men officially enlisted when the Surgeon General made his call, shipped out. Arthur W. Proetz, a graduate of both Washington University in St Louis (1910) and the Wash U Medical School (1912), was one of the doctors traveling with the unit. Many years later, Proetz wrote about the surrealness of shipping out to war so quickly in article for the St. Louis Post Dispatch, in which he admits, “Like the rest of America, we were totally unprepared for war. We did not even know how to drill.”
Washington University Library’s University Archives has a collection of Dr. Proetz’s World War I memorabilia, including his letters home during the war, photographs, and original sketches of the Base Hospital and surrounding areas that provide us with a vivid sense of what working on the Base Hospital was like.
On February 22, the Becker Medical Library will host a lecture on Base Hospital 21 with Archivist Phillip Skroska. The lecture will be held at 4:30pm in the King Center on the seventh floor, and a reception with drinks and appetizers will immediately follow in the Glaser Gallery, where Skroska’s new exhibit on Base Hospital 21 will open for viewing.
The History of the Base Hospital
The Base Hospital Units had been formed, albeit unofficially, well before America joined the war. Voluntary reserve units from a number of American universities served three month rotations at a hospital in France beginning in 1914, and encouraged other medical schools to create similar self-contained hospital units that could be quickly mobilized if needed.
The British were experiencing a severe shortage of doctors by 1917, and needed medical personnel deployed as quickly as possible. Washington University’s Base Hospital 21 was one of six base hospitals that were selected to be immediately mobilized ahead of American fighting forces.
Base Hospital 21 with its twenty or so doctors, dozens of nurses, and 150 enlisted men, was equipped to handle a 500-bed hospital, but was surprised to find itself assigned to a 1300 bed hospital made of tents on a racetrack near Rouen. They immediately sent for and received reinforcements from Wash U, but were chronically understaffed throughout the war. Above is Dr. Proetz’s sketch of the lines of tents that made up part of the hospital unit.
Treating the Wounded
The wounded generally arrived at the base hospital at night and in large groups via a long train ride from the battlefield. The Base Hospital had to develop methods of triaging and treating the patients efficiently, particularly when the fighting was heavy.
Base Hospital 21 treated all types of injuries, both physical and neurological. They functioned mainly as a clearing station, which meant that patients would be moved to other hospitals as soon as their conditions allowed. During its 18 months in Rouen, Base Hospital 21 handled over 60,000 patients.
Keeping Morale High
Hardly any traveling entertainment groups made it as far as the Base Hospital unit, but officers, nurses, and enlisted men found ways to keep their patients’ spirits high. Proetz frequently writes in his letters home about putting on amateur theatrical shows for some of the officers and nurses in the concert and theater huts in the camp.
During the holidays especially, everyone did their best to make injured soldiers feel more at home. Proetz writes in a letter dated Dec 26, 1917, “The nurses made a netting stocking for every patient in the place, and filled it with fruit, nuts, and tobacco.” He also writes about how everyone pitched in to give the soldiers a proper Christmas meal, which the cooks worked all night on.
The Base Hospital unit remained intact after the war and became the largest single medical organization in the US army during WWII.
More About the Proetz Collection
After the war, Proetz went on to be a Professor of Clinical Otolayrngology at the Washington University School of Medicine. The Proetz collection contains much of his childhood and University memorabilia, war and medical correspondence, scrapbooks, photographs, and several mystery-themed films he produced. To see a more detailed inventory of the University’s Arthur W. Proetz collection, you can view the holding record here. You might also want to have a look at our previous blog post on Dr. Proetz, which includes more details about the collection and reproductions of his creative holiday cards.
For more information on Base Hospital 21, see the WU Bernard Becker Medical Library online exhibit.